Cell phone data trail betrays caller
Using cell phone location data, an international collection of secret agents hunted down a Kurdish political fugitive and sent him back to Turkey where he faced the death penalty.
Turkish special service agents captured Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan after his cell phone call locations were allegedly tracked by U.S., British, and Israeli intelligence agents.
Ocalan was captured in Kenya in 1999 after taking refuge in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi.
Ocalan had been in hiding since being expelled from Syria in the late 90's. His whereabouts had been a closely guarded secret until his capture. The US claims it did not take part in the apprehension and transfer of Ocalan. But critics believe persistent reports that the US intercepted his cell phone conversations at the embassy and passed on the information to Turkey.
Abdullah Ocalan has been a controversial figure since taking up the cause of an independent Kurdistan in the 1970s when he founded the PKK. With its ideology based on a mixture of nationalism and Marxism-Leninism, the PKK had been fighting a bloody war for an independent Kurdish state for 16 years. Ocalan called for a ceasefire after his capture. 30,000 people are estimated to have died during the campaign.
To some Kurds, Ocalan is a heroic freedom fighter. To others - and to the governments of Turkey and the US - he has been branded a ruthless terrorist.
The history of the Kurds in the 20th century is one of repression, violence, forced resettlement, and manipulation by powerful countries. Kurdish groups in Iraq and Turkey have been backed by Iran and Syria. Iraqi Kurds in particular have been financed, trained and armed by the US and Israel.
In one of his most infamous acts of violence, Saddam Hussein used mustard gas to kill 5000 Kurds at Halabja in Iraq in 1988.
With a population of between twenty and twenty five million, the Kurds are the largest stateless population in the world. Their historical lands cover parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and south east Turkey. The Kurdish people are not united by language or religion, though most are Sunni Muslim. Three million Kurds now live in Istanbul.
After he was expelled from Syria, Ocalan moved frequently and was unable to find a country that would provide him with safe political asylum. The circumstances of his final days at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi are murky, subject to conflicting stories and persistent rumours about how he was located. Shortly after his capture, the New York Times published a report citing unnamed US sources which claimed that his cell phone activity was tracked by intelligence agents from the US, Britain and Israel.
They reportedly turned over the information to the Turkish government, which then sent a team of commandos to Nairobi to capture Ocalan with the help of Kenyan personnel. Ocalan was taken back to Turkey and imprisoned.
Ocalan was sentenced to death in 1999, but his execution was stayed in 2000 pending a decision by the European Court of Human Rights about whether he had received a fair trial in Turkey. Ocalan issued a written statement from his prison cell stating that he now believes the PKK's fight for an independent Kurdish state was a "historic mistake".
In October of 2002, Abdullah Ocalan's death sentence was lifted as part of Turkey's campaign to join the European Union. Turkey had promised to abolish the death penalty and pass reforms that meet the EU's standard of human rights. Ocalan's sentenced has been commuted to life in prison.