Skip to main content

Kurdish hunger strikers wait for news from meeting of jailed leader

Imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan has met for a second time with lawyers as a wide Kurdish hunger strike endangers lives.
Leyla Guven, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker who has been on a hunger strike for more than four months, rests in her bed at her home in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 20, 2019. Picture taken March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC1F50CE4990

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), was granted access to his lawyers today in the first such meeting since May 2 and the second in eight years, amid signs that Ankara is easing his isolation.

Lawyers Nevroz Uysal and Rezan Sarica returned from the island prison of Imrali, where Ocalan has been held since 1999, following his treason conviction.

But Ibrahim Bilmez, a member of Ocalan’s vast legal team, said what had been discussed is still under wraps. “It may take one or two days for us to share this information,” Bilmez told Al-Monitor.

The government’s decision to end Ocalan’s communications embargo has sparked widespread debate about its possible motives. One is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to woo back Kurds who voted in favor of the opposition in the March 31 local elections, helping it grab many of Turkey’s largest cities, including Istanbul. A do-over election for Istanbul is to be held on June 23, after the country’s top electoral commission upheld the AKP's claims of irregularities. Around two million of Istanbul’s 15 million-strong population are believed to be Kurds.

The controversial decision was announced on May 6. The same day, his lawyers shared a message Ocalan composed during the May 2 meeting. He made no mention of the elections.

Instead, Ocalan appealed to more than 3,000 hunger strikers protesting his internment conditions to not endanger their lives. But the strikes continue and “the situation is getting critical,” said Bilmez. “My personal opinion is that the government is above all concerned with getting our client to use his influence to help end the strikes.” Should they result in death, Bilmez warned, it would fuel nationwide unrest and add to instability as the country grapples with its worst financial crisis in recent years.

Leyla Guven, a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party who spearheaded the hunger strikes, is on her 196th day of refusing solid food.

Some 30 Ocalan supporters are refusing all forms of nutrition and medical intervention until their conditions are met. Over time, such actions can trigger Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder that is caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency and leads to a painful death.

The PKK has signaled that the hunger strikes will continue until Ocalan’s isolation is terminated and he is granted free and unfettered access to his family and lawyers. It could be seen as a display of loyalty in which the organization persists in advocating sacrifice despite his appeals. But it could also be the PKK’s way of messaging Ankara that it won’t cooperate unless it shows real signs of wanting to resume peace talks to end the 35-year-old Kurdish conflict.

Ocalan’s message also addressed Syria, where the PKK’s sister organization the People’s Protection Units (YPG) dominates around a third of the war-wracked country with military protection from the United States.

Ocalan did not refer to the YPG specifically but instead called on the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, to take “Turkey’s sensitivities into account” and to steer clear from “a culture of conflict.” His words were interpreted by some as a signal to the YPG to be more yielding as the United States pursues efforts to secure agreement between Turkey and the Kurdish militants on a proposed safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey has not backed down from demands that its forces monitor the zone that would stretch east of the Euphrates River on the Syrian side all the way to the Iraqi border. The United States' special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, is said to be continuing to pile pressure on the YPG to make further concessions “to stop the process from stalling,” a source familiar with the substance of the talks told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Whether further exhortations from Ocalan will soften the YPG’s opposition to a Turkish presence remains to be seen.

Typically, the government vets any statements made by the 71-year-old guerrilla boss before they are made public, and at least one government official — from the national intelligence agency or the armed forces — is present when Ocalan meets with visitors.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Free

The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.

Free

What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing
Expert

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial