ANKARA (Reuters) - Snatched by Turkish commandos in Nairobi, Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan looked resigned and bewildered as he was flown back to Ankara, the gallows beckoning. A decade later, on his island prison, he appears to have the ear of a Turkish government eager to end a devastating conflict.
It seems an unlikely comeback. Reviled in most of Turkey but commanding fierce loyalty from Kurdish nationalists, Ocalan has been held in virtual isolation on the barren island of Imrali, 50 km (30 miles) south of Istanbul, since his capture in 1999.
Even his lawyers haven’t seen him for 15 months.
But after the bloodiest summer for years in Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish militants, and with fears over the spread of Kurdish insurrection in neighboring Syria, Ocalan is emerging from the virtual oblivion of Imrali.
When hundreds of Kurdish militants on hunger strike in jails across Turkey drew close to death this month, Turkish authorities turned to the man reviled by newspapers after his capture as “Butcher” and “Baby Killer”.
A message through his brother to call off the strike was immediately obeyed, an apparent sign of the authority generally supposed to have drifted from the man, known by allies as “Apo”, over his years on Imrali.
“He proved that he is still the boss, that he has the last word,” said Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, who met Ocalan twice in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s.
“He is not a fighter or a guerrilla war expert, he is more the thinking man trying to shape the Kurdish problem. He wants to be the leader of all Kurds, that is the image he gives.”
Turkish MIT intelligence officials took the ferry to Imrali at least three times over the past two months and their talks with Ocalan paved the way for his appeal, according to the liberal daily Radikal, which did not identify its sources.
Few men stir such hatred in Turkey as Ocalan, who founded the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebel group and led the armed struggle for Kurdish home rule for 15 years before his capture, a conflict which burns at the heart of the country.
Many hold him responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people since the PKK - designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union - took up arms in 1984.
Its campaign has included bombings in major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and has stirred anger with images of soldiers’ coffins returning, although most of those killed in almost three decades of conflict have been PKK fighters.
His brother Mehmet said more than a decade on the tiny island of Imrali, where military coup leaders hanged a prime minister along with two other ministers five decades ago, appeared to have taken only a limited toll.
“Psychologically he’s fine. He’s able to analyze the world, Turkey and the region very well. He doesn’t have any health problem,” he told reporters after visiting Ocalan.
“He was in good shape, physically and psychologically.”
“HANG, HANG, HANG”
Many Turks rejoiced when Ocalan was hounded from a series of Middle East hideouts, denied refuge in Europe and finally tracked to Kenya by Turkish special forces in 1999. Television showed footage at the time of him strapped into the seat of a plane transporting him to Ankara, flanked by masked soldiers.
He appeared weary and at times bemused talking with his captors, who had seized him at Nairobi airport in a secret operation as he attempted to flee his refuge in Kenya.
After a televised trial, he was sentenced to death, the sentence upheld while crowds chanted “hang, hang, hang” outside the court.
Ocalan would have become the first prisoner executed in Turkey for 25 years had the country not abolished capital punishment a few years later, part of a wave of reforms aimed at gaining membership of the European Union, which still eludes it.
Ocalan’s solitary confinement was eased in 2009 when five more inmates were brought to Imrali. Only a handful of people have seen him in recent years. Lawyers say he has no access to a telephone or television and his newspapers are censored.
Pictures released by the government in 2009 to demonstrate that his living conditions complied with international norms showed a mattress on a grey metal bed frame in a narrow cell, a small plastic table and chair under a barred window.
Before his capture, Ocalan, now 64, cut a portly figure, with beady eyes and a thick, bushy moustache.
A drop-out from Ankara University’s political science faculty, he forged his political ideas among violent street battles between left- and right-wing gangs in the 1970s. He then split from the left, raising the Kurdish nationalist banner to found the PKK in 1978. His goal was an independent state for Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Those who met him in the 1980s say he ran his campaign from luxury villas in Syria rather than fighting on the front lines.
“I can’t say he gave an image of a very strong character,” said Birand, describing his fear after he was apprehended and held for two days by the Syrian secret police in Damascus.
He was forced to flee Syria in 1998 when Turkish troops massed on the border and threatened intervention. The PKK’s base then moved to northern Iraq, where Turkey has carried out air strikes against its camps as recently as this month.
Ocalan himself fled to Rome before moving around Europe looking in vain for a new host to shelter him, ultimately going to Kenya as the snare closed, seeking refuge in the Greek embassy there under close observation by Turkish and western intelligence services.
Erdogan, who publicly refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers and dismissed their protest as blackmail supported by “merchants of death”, said no promises had been made to Ocalan in exchange for his intervention.
“There was no such thing,” he told reporters on the way back from a trip to Egypt last week.
But the government has also suggested more talks between the intelligence agencies and the PKK were a possibility.
“This is Ocalan’s second comeback,” said Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University who also writes for the Radikal.
“What people saw with the hunger strike was that peaceful disobedience can achieve something, that you do not have to kill Turkish soldiers. It will be more and more difficult for the PKK to convince Kurds that their methods are valid,” he said.
Negotiations with the PKK were unthinkable until only a few years ago and more recent contacts have proved politically fraught. Recordings leaked last year showed senior intelligence officials had held secret meetings with the group in Oslo, leading to condemnation by parts of the nationalist opposition.
Erdogan’s government has widened cultural and language rights for Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey’s 75-million strong population, since taking power a decade ago and has sent to parliament a bill allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court, another demand of the hunger strikers.
But Kurdish politicians, who have called for Ocalan’s release, are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast, which borders Syria, Iran and Iraq.
“In principle, we’re not against talking to PKK or to Ocalan, but under the right circumstances, for the right purposes,” said Faruk Logoglu, vice chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“The primary purpose would be to specify the conditions under which they give up arms, not the overall solution of the Kurdish problem, which is not their domain,” he told Reuters.
“They have ideas, we know those already. We don’t need to hear them from Mr. Ocalan’s mouth.”
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton