Murder in Paris: Parsing the Murder of Female PKK Leader Sakine Cansiz


By Michael Gunter – Militant Leadership Monitor – Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2013

Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez, three female members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan – PKK) were murdered in Paris on the night of January 9 (The Kurdistan Tribune, January 10).

The three victims held varying levels of seniority. Sakine Cansiz was an important leader in the PKK movement but since the murder, her importance in the organization has been exaggerated.


Sakine Cansiz was an Alevi born in 1957¬—her precise birth date is unknown because at that time the Turkish government did not record birth data for Kurds. Cansiz was born in the southeastern Turkish province of Tunceli (a.k.a. Dersim by the Kurds), the site of the last major Kurdish uprising against Turkey between 1936-1938. She was present at the PKK’s founding meeting on November 26-27, 1978.

[1] Cansiz was one of many PKK members imprisoned in the notorious Diyarbakir prison where she was held from 1979-91—the Turkish government was cracking down on Kurdish dissidents, among many others, at the time, especially after the military coup of September 12, 1980. At least 34 PKK members died or committed suicide during their incarceration at Diyarbakir prison; although Cansiz was subjected to similar torture and other deprivations, she managed to survive and earned the esteem of her colleagues.

[2] When she was finally released, Cansiz journeyed to the well-known PKK Mazlum Korkmaz training camp in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley for further training. She subsequently moved to northern Iraq where she served under Osman Ocalan, the younger brother of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In the early 1990s, Cansiz’s PKK career almost came to a premature end when she was associated with the losing faction in the Vejin (Resurrection) affair. The Vejin affair involved PKK leader Ocalan’s purge of his former wife Kesire Yildirim and Huseyin Yildirim, a Kurdish lawyer living in Sweden who for several years in the early 1980s had served as one of the European spokesmen for the PKK. After being held in detention by the PKK in a Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon, Kesire managed to escape to Europe where she joined Huseyin Yildirim and others in a failed attempt to establish an alternative movement called the PKK-Vejin.

The PKK’s Internal Struggle and External Enemies Over the years, there were many such internal struggles within the PKK that resulted in failed breakaway movements.

[3] Osman Ocalan himself was involved in one of the failed struggles in 2004 and claimed in 2008 that the PKK had tried to assassinate him on two occasions. Kani Yilmaz, another former high-ranking PKK leader, was assassinated in northern Iraq in 2006. The PPK was suspected of being responsible for the murder (, February 13, 2006;, February 13, 2006). [4]

Cansiz made her peace with Abdullah Ocalan and was eventually sent to Germany, where as many as 800,000 Kurds live and the PKK has long been influential despite being formally banned by that state since 1993. Cansiz became particularly active in women’s issues, a very important part of the PKK movement. [5] Cansiz also eventually became one of the few PKK members involved in the financial affairs of the organization (Hurriyet, January 14). [6] In recent years, Cansiz has also been responsible for other areas in Europe such as France.

As a result of an international arrest warrant issued by Turkey in 2007, Cansiz spent one month in a German prison, but was freed after the German authorities turned down a Turkish request for her extradition (International Herald Tribune, January 10). Subsequently, she was based in Paris where she ran afoul of French authorities who were under pressure by Turkey to crack down on the PKK (The New York Times, January 13).

Adem Uzun, a prominent member of the Kongreya Neteweyi ia Kurdistane (KNK – Kurdistan National Congress, associated with the PKK), was arrested by French police on October 6, 2012 while attending a conference in Paris on the Kurds in Syria (The Kurdistan Tribune, October 20, 2012). Uzun has been held in a French prison since then under precarious evidence. His situation may be related to the subsequent murder of Sakine as in both cases some person or persons with access to highly secret information was aware of the movements, meetings and contacts of both Cansiz and Uzun.

After her assassination, many media sources claimed that as a high-ranking PKK member Cansiz had been one of the PKK negotiators involved in the secretive 2010-2011 Oslo negotiations between Turkey and the PKK, but this claim exaggerated her importance. Uzun, however, had participated in this dialogue for peace, which had been halted in the summer of 2011 and then renewed just before Cansiz was murdered (The New York Times, January 2).

The timing of Cansiz’s murder strongly suggested that it was Militant Leadership Monitor Volume VI u Issue 1 u January 2013 carried out by either rogue Turkish or Kurdish elements strongly opposed to the nascent negotiations. The ultra nationalist “Deep State” in Turkey—elements of which are now on trial in Turkey as part of the alleged Ergenekon military conspiracy against the AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Dr. Fehman Huseyin (aka Bahoz Erdal) are both possible actors who might have been behind Cansiz’s assassination. Huseyin is a Syrianbased hardline PKK commander who supports the Assad government and is believed to be opposed to negotiations with Turkey. Cansiz’s murder might also have had something to do with her important role in PKK financial affairs.

Syria and Iran also have reason to sabotage Turkish initiatives that might strengthen their Turkish enemy—Turkey has become one of the main opponents of the embattled Assad regime in Syria that is still supported by Iran. Since there are numerous Kurds of Syrian and Iranian origin within the PKK, both states would have been able to hire disgruntled agents within the PKK. Iran was behind the assassination of the Iranian Kurdish leaders Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989, and his successor Sadiq Sharafkindi in Berlin in 1992. On the other hand, both Iran and Syria seem to have their hands full with enough problems now for either to have taken part in the murder. Shortly after the murder, however, French police arrested Omer Guney, a murky character who did have PKK connections but was also mentally unstable (Sabah [Istanbul], January 23). Obviously there was much yet to be discovered in this case.

Being a Woman in the PKK

Cansiz’s assassination called attention to the unusually prominent role women play in the PKK. Cansiz came from a traditional, conservative society; her important role in the PKK demonstrates the organization’s progressive nature.

Abdullah Ocalan explained:

As to the question of women’s rights I have always tried a new approach, to break away from the fossilized thinking, and behavior prevalent in the Middle East. Women are the oppressed gender of a class society very deeply rooted in history…I supported them in their efforts to overcome their fear of struggling for their own emancipation. [7]

Cansiz’s support for Ocalan and high position within the PKK was a specific example of this philosophy. At first, traditional Kurdish families opposed their daughters’ involvement in the PKK, especially given that they would be living with men. The organization’s policy of strictly prohibiting sexual relationships among its members, however, helped alleviate these traditional conservative fears. In addition, given the PKK’s perceived legitimacy within Kurdish society, it became unpatriotic to oppose joining it. Currently, the PKK includes one of the largest groups of female fighters in the world. Women have joined the PKK not only to fight for Kurdish rights and nationalism, but also as a means of empowerment. The long-lasting PKK insurgency also radicalized Kurdish women who saw their husbands and sons killed and their homes destroyed. [8] In conclusion, Cansiz—although a senior PKK member on favorable terms with leader Abdullah Ocalan—was not one of Ocalan’s closest confidantes or an intermediary for Ocalan in talks with Turkey. Though her role has been exaggerated since the murder, Yalcin Akdogan, the chief advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that the murder “has strengthened public will for a solution to the Kurdish question, contrary to a common belief that it would derail the peace process” (Today’s Zaman, January 14).

Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee and teaches during the summer at the International University in Vienna, Austria. He was a former Senior Fulbright Lecturer in International Relations in Turkey and Israel.


1. Jongerden and Akkaya, “The Making of the PKK,” in Marlies Casier and Joost Jongerden, eds., Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 136.

2. Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds and the Future of Turkey – (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 26.

3. Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief, (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 89-96; 134-40.

4. Michael Gunter, The Kurds Ascending, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 107-30.

5. Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century, (London: Transmedia Publishing Ltd., 2011), 68.

6. As an officially designated terrorist organization, the PKK has been linked with drug trafficking by the U.S. government and others, a charge vehemently denied by the PKK.

7. Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings, 2011, p. 130.

8. Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings, 2011, 54, 64; Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief, 2007, 172-74