Skip to main content

November 21, 1998
Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema
Piazza Colonna, 370
00187 Rome

Re: Case of Abdullah Ocalan

Dear Prime Minister D'Alema:

I am writing to you regarding the case of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Human Rights Watch believes that Ocalan should not receive asylum under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and that he must be held accountable for atrocities committed under his leadership in the conflict in Turkey. At the same time, we recognize that extradition of Ocalan to Turkey for trial would violate Italy's international commitments and we think that yesterday's decision to deny Turkey's extradition request was appropriate. Now we believe your government must take the next step to investigate and prosecute Ocalan in Italy, or extradite him to a country, other than Turkey, that is willing to exercise jurisdiction and can assure Ocalan a free and fair trial consistent with international law.

As you may know, Human Rights Watch is a privately funded non-governmental organization dedicated to investigating human rights abuse around the world and advocating policies to counter them. We have conducted extensive research in Turkey, documenting the widespread use of torture in pre-trial detention, as well as gross violations of international humanitarian law committed by both sides to the conflict in the southeast of Turkey, the PKK and state security forces.

Human Rights Watch strongly believes that, in light of the widespread and systematic atrocities against the civilian population committed by the PKK as a matter of policy under Ocalan's leadership, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees dictates that his asylum claim be denied. That convention precludes asylum for any person "with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that he has committed...a crime against humanity."

Moreover, we believe that Ocalan must be brought to justice for his offenses. No promise to renounce terrorism can excuse these abuses nor replace accountability. Nonetheless, we believe that Italy has correctly determined not to send Ocalan to Turkey to stand trial. Given the widespread use of torture in Turkey, extradition of Ocalan to Turkey would conflict with Italy's commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibit the extradition of an individual to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be subject to torture. Human Rights Watch also approves of Italy's refusal to extradite Ocalan to Turkey on the basis of its maintenance of the death penalty. Since Ocalan cannot be extradited to Turkey to stand trial, we believe it is incumbent upon the government of Italy to take steps to investigate and prosecute him in Italy or extradite him to another country that will both respect the prohibitions against his return to Turkey and hold him accountable in a free and fair trial conducted according to international standards.

The abuses for which Ocalan should be investigated have been documented by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, including the widely respected Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. To summarize, between 1992 and 1995, the height of the conflict in southeastern Turkey, the PKK is believed to have committed at least 768 extrajudicial executions. Targets included teachers, civil servants, political opponents, off-duty police officers and soldiers, and those deemed by the PKK to be "state supporters." In addition, in those same years, the PKK committed numerous large-scale massacres of civilians, usually villagers or villages that somehow were connected with the state civil defense "village guard system." For your reference, we have attached an appendix listing the most notorious massacres that occurred during this period and were attributed to the PKK or for which the PKK took responsibility. In these assaults, 360 people were killed, including thirty-nine women and seventy-six children.

These actions were not committed by rogue units or commanders, but were PKK official policy. At its March 1994 Third National Conference, the PKK made the following declaration:

The struggle which the PKK carries out has left the stage of strategic defense. . . . It is inevitable that we escalate our struggle in response to Turkey's declaration of all-out war.

Consequently, all economic, political, military, social and cultural organizations, institutions, formations -- and those who serve in them -- have become targets. The entire country has become a battlefield.

The PKK also promised to "liquidate" or "eliminate" political parties, "imperialist" cultural and educational institutions, legislative and representative bodies, and "all local collaborators and agents working for the Republic of Turkey in Kurdistan."

As Human Rights Watch has often reported and condemned, Turkish government forces have, in the course of the conflict with the PKK, also committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and indiscriminate fire. We continue to demand that the Turkish government investigate and hold accountable those members of its security forces responsible for these violations. Nonetheless, under international law, the government abuses cannot under any circumstances be seen to justify or excuse those committed by Ocalan's PKK.

Human Rights Watch has welcomed the leadership role that Italy has played in bringing the world closer to realization of a permanent International Criminal Court. We urge you to exhibit that same commitment to international justice in resolving the Ocalan case.


Holly Cartner

Executive Director
Europe & Central Asia Division

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country