Kurdish protests mark 18th anniversary of Ocalan's arrest

February 15, 2009
Protests took place today across Turkey to mark the tenth anniversary of the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ӧcalan in Kenya. Ӧcalan was later brought to trial and imprisoned on the island of İmralı in the Marmara Sea, where he is the only prisoner in residence. Pictures taken of demonstrations taking place in Batman, a city in southeastern Turkey, can be seen here
Abdullah Ocalan in the 1990s

The PKK is the Kurdish Workers Party, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. About 30,000 people are estimated to have died in this fighting, which took the form of both terrorist attacks across Turkey and open combat operations between PKK fighters and Turkish troops in the mountains of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
After Ӧcalan's arrest in 1999, things quieted down considerably. Ӧcalan, who was fighting for his life (he was sentenced to death but was never executed), publicly called for PKK fighters to put down their weapons, while the remaining PKK leadership declared a unilateral cease-fire. The Turkish government, meanwhile, approved an amnesty for PKK fighters who were willing to turn themselves in. In recent years, the Turkish government has also somewhat liberalized cultural policies towards the Kurdish language, which in the 1980s was completely banned from the public sphere. In January of this year, the state-owned Turkish Radio and Televsion (TRT) began broadcasting a few hours each evening in Kurdish on one of its channels, TRT 6.
Whether or not this lull in the fighting would have lasted is an open question. What seems certain, however, is that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath appear to have had a destabilizing impact upon the uneasy truce. Since the invasion, PKK bombings of military and civilian targets have taken place on a number of occasions, although still to a lesser degree than was the case in the 1990s.
More recently, Kurds in southeastern Turkey and Istanbul have taken to holding mass demonstrations (see here and here), especially around the period of Newroz, a holiday celebrated by Kurds during the Spring equinox (March 21).  In November of last year, thousands of Kurds protested in several cities in the southeast during a series of visits by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan.
The protests today appear to have been quite large (see photos here at the website of the newspaper Radikal).  As was the case with the protests last November, a large number of small children were also involved in the protests which took place today. The evening news showed video of dozens of children (very young looking--perhaps 10-12 years old maximum) throwing rocks at police and cameramen.
Most of the mainstream news outlets in Turkey are not giving estimates regarding the number of people participating in the protests. Mazlum-Der estimates that in Diyarbakır there were some 15,000 protesters, some of whom carried posters of Ӧcalan and PKK flags. The website savaskarsitlari.org gives the following numbers:
  • In Adana, approximately 1000 protesters, including Abdullah Ӧcalan's sister.
  • In Şırnak, 1000 protesters, and another 3000 protesters in the town of Silopi, outside Şırnak.
  • In Van, 4000 protesters.
  • "Thousands" of other protesters taking part in demonstrations in Batman, Siirt, Adiyman, Istanbul, Izmir, and numerous other cities.
It's hard to say how reliable these numbers are, but I was struck by the size and violence of the crowds that I saw on TV. I think it's safe to assume that, with nationwide municipal elections coming up on March 26,  there's a chance things could get quite violent this year during Newroz.

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