Following leaked letter, Turkish sociologist details visit to jailed PKK leader Öcalan

A Turkish sociologist who paid a rare visit on Thursday to Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has revealed the circumstances that led him to leak a controversial letter from the Kurdish leader days before a crucial election in Istanbul.

The sociologist said the meeting had taken place upon the demands of himself, Öcalan, and the state, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported, adding that the PKK leader had given him the letter after initially asking the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to make it public.

Many Turks heard the name of Ali Kemal Özcan, a sociologist at Munzur University in the eastern province of Tunceli, for the first time on Thursday, after he leaked a letter written by Öcalan calling on the HDP to follow a “third way” in the struggle between Turkey’s ruling and opposition blocs. 

Turkey’s state-run agency informed Turks about the letter on Thursday night, saying it was a call for HDP voters to stay neutral in the controversial Istanbul mayoral election rerun on Sunday. Later the letter was shared by pro-government accounts on social media.

In an unexpected move, the Turkish government lifted visitation restrictions on Öcalan in early May. Öcalan has been held in long periods of isolation in a prison on an island in the Marmara Sea since his capture in 1999. Since restrictions were lifted in May, Öcalan has met with his lawyers three times and has been visited by his brother.

The letter incident showed that other people have also been allowed to visit the PKK leader in prison. 

“It took place upon the state’s, Öcalan’s, and my demand,” Özcan told Cumhuriyet. “I have wanted to meet him since July 2010. My request was accepted by Öcalan and the state,” he said. Özcan has published academic works on Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

The sociologist did not provide a direct answer to a question about exactly which state institution authorised the visit. 

“A state official was present during the meeting. Öcalan reacted when he heard that the letter he wrote to his lawyers was not made public and took a copy of the letter from the state official and gave it to me,” he said, adding that he had been with the PKK leader for several hours.

In a written statement on Friday, Öcalan’s lawyers said that they had visited the jailed leader on Tuesday, but were asked by Öcalan to discuss the letter with the HDP before making it public.

Özcan told Habertürk columnist Nagehan Alçı that this had been his second visit to Öcalan in one week, and that he had first met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“I work on this organisation and Öcalan and know its structure very well. I always thought I would be able to convince President (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan in 15 minutes (to allow the visit) if I managed to reach him,” Özcan told Alçı. 

Özcan said he had reached out to Bülent Arınç, a formerly ranking name in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), 10 days ago. He said Arınç took him to meet Erdoğan, and that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, was also present at the meeting. 

Veteran Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin recalled on Saturday in a blog post that Arınç, one of the founding fathers of the AKP, had abruptly been appointed to the Supreme Consultation Council of the Turkish presidency, after being sidelined by Erdoğan for almost three years.

Yetkin said the government wanted some state officials to resume dialogue with Öcalan but employed people who are not officially holding office, as in the past state officials like Fidan faced criminal complaints due to negotiations with the PKK leader.

After the government lifted restrictions on meeting Öcalan, many speculated that Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were considering re-launching peace talks with the PKK that collapsed in 2015, ending a two-year ceasefire in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.

Some observers saw the lifting of restrictions as an AKP ploy to try to win Kurdish votes in the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election on June 23. Öcalan’s messages further stoked suspicions of a deal between the government and PKK leader, who is widely respected by Kurds in Turkey and its neighbours, ahead of the polls.