Down from the mountains: Rehabilitating former PKK guerillas

The government has tried to bring the PKK down from the mountains through amnesty programmes, but experts argue much more needs to be done to end the conflict.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye — 07/08/12

Maher Kader (now in Germany) was charged with terrorism and affiliation with an illegal organisation by a Turkish court in 2001. The 37-year-old former Diyarbakir resident and his cousin, Ugur, were among a group of more than 20 PKK members who surrendered to Turkish authorities in 1999, just days after the group’s captured leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called on his followers to renounce violence and seek a political solution to the Kurdish conflict.

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The rebels crossed the border from northern Iraq in what they described as a “symbol that the PKK is serious about peace.” But after facing trial in a state security court on terrorism-related charges, which carry prison sentences of more than 15 years, Kader fled to Germany, not to return.

“I lost my cousin Ugur in prison. My own life was also shattered,” Kader told SES Türkiye, adding that he did not kill anybody during his time with the PKK. A rehabilitation law for PKK insurgents who have surrendered allowed nearly 1,000 to return to normal life between 2005 and 2010, according to official numbers. Penal Code Article 221 allows group members who repent and have not committed violent crimes to receive reduced or suspended sentences.

Speaking to SES Türkiye, ruling Justice and Development Party deputy Mehmet Suleyman Hamzaogullari said the government’s policy is to bring all of those who have chosen “weapons or the mountains” into a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issues. However, he said, the security forces consider each surrender case individually. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a writer for the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw and an analyst on PKK issues for the US-based Jamestown Foundation, said the laws are not inclusive enough to entice the PKK to end the conflict. “The PKK insurgents only receive amnesty if they did not commit any crimes,” he told SES Türkiye. “There are PKK insurgents surrendering but often there is propaganda.”

Cenap Cakmak, head of the international relations department at Osmangazi University in Eskisehir, said the government does not have a comprehensive policy to integrate rebels within society and ensure they find a job and live a normal life.

“The policy is mostly based on the idea that they should be assured so that they decide to leave the PKK, but nothing more. There is no rehabilitation, no efforts to integrate them within society,” he told SES Türkiye.

“I do not think that this policy is working. Of course, it is something desirable for the families whose sons and daughters are fighting in the mountains. But overall, it is not sufficient to make sure that the PKK is losing power,” he said.

Nader Entessar, who authored the book Kurdish Politics in the Middle East, pointed out that in the history of guerrilla warfare around the world there are several examples of fighters surrendering to the government.

But in the case of the PKK, “the number of defectors has so far not been large enough to threaten the cohesion of the PKK or force the organization to abandon its military strategy against the Turkish government.”  Cakmak said some who surrender are set free but seek refuge in another country out of fear of persecution, prosecution and condemnation by PKK supporters in their environment. Others are taken under protection, whereas some are able to lead a regular life.

“Those who are sent to jail after they surrendered also have different stories. Most of them, however, enjoy the leniency in the laws. But it is not possible to say that they fully regretted what they had done in the mountains,” he added.

Michael Gunter, a professor who has written nine books on the Kurds, said that rehabilitation should go hand-in-hand with democratic reforms that address the reasons behind the conflict.

“There must be provisions for amnesty for all PKK fighters who take a loyalty oath to Turkey. Then there must be provisions for employment possibilities for former PKK members,” he said.

“However, Turkey must guarantee a new more democratic constitution that among other things provides for civic citizenship, not ethnic citizenship; mother-tongue education; Kurdish political rights to organize their own political parties for those who want to; and some type of meaningful governmental decentralization while still maintaining the unitary government,” he said.

“Indeed, former PKK members must be allowed to compete politically in Turkey. This includes Ocalan,” he added.