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Turkey Ends Ban on Lawyer Visits to Kurdish Rebel Chief Ocalan

Turkey has lifted a ban on lawyer visits to imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, the justice minister said on Thursday, reversing an eight-year policy of isolation.

Ocalan has been in near-total isolation on an island off Istanbul since his arrest in 1999, but remains a key figure for Kurdish separatists, not just in Turkey but also in Syria and Iraq.

“The ruling that prevents meetings (with his lawyers) has been lifted and the opportunity to meet with him has been allowed,” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul told reporters in Ankara.

He added that visits could still be limited on security grounds.

Ocalan was co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and led a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state which has claimed some 40,000 lives since it began in 1984.

He met his lawyers on May 2 for the first time since 2011.

They read a message from Ocalan that appeared to offer an olive-branch to the Turkish government.

He said “Turkey’s sensitivities” should be taken into account in Syria where the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia is battling the Islamic State group.

Turkey says the YPG is a “terrorist offshoot” of Ocalan’s PKK.

Lawyers seek second visit

One of his lawyers, Ibrahim Bilmez, told AFP that he had made an application to visit Ocalan on Friday but were waiting for a decision from Turkish authorities.

“We are expecting them to adhere to the rules and accept our applications,” he said.

There have also been requests for more regular visits from lawyers, as well as letters and phone calls with family.

Ocalan’s brother was allowed to visit him in January for the first time since 2016.

Around 3,000 Kurdish prisoners have been on hunger strike, eating no solid food, since November to protest Ocalan’s isolation, according to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Eight people have also killed themselves’ over the issue, according to the party.

Ocalan sent a message through one of his lawyers for the hunger strikers to limit their actions.

The decision to allow visits comes ahead of a controversial re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election, which was lost by the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Analysts say Kurdish votes played a role in defeating Erdogan’s party, and that he could be hoping to win their support for the re-run.

Bloody insurgency

The PKK is proscribed as a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies.

More than 40,000 people have been killed during the bloody insurgency which intensified after a two-and-a-half year ceasefire collapsed in 2015.

Ocalan was caught in February 1999 outside the Greek embassy in Nairobi and jailed a few months later after he was found guilty of treason, separatism and murder.

Before his arrest, Ocalan was in exile in Syria until Damascus and Ankara reached an agreement in 1998 and he was forced to leave.

The PKK was established by Ocalan with fellow students to seek Kurdish independence but now limits its demands to greater autonomy and rights for the millions of Kurds in Turkey.

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