Slain PKK member was a rebel with a cause

Sakine Cansiz, one of the founders of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), led a tough life that included stints on the frontlines and in notorious Turkish jails, making her a legend in PKK ranks.


At a conference on the Kurdish language in the French capital in the early 2000s, Kendal Nezan, president of the Kurdish Institute in Paris, was approached by a gaunt, soft-spoken woman who spoke to him in his native Kurdish.

“She said she was Sakine Cansiz and she asked me if I knew who she was,” recounted Nezan in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Of course I knew her. Sakine Cansiz was a prominent resistance personality. She was arrested, she was very heavily tortured, she was very courageous, she was a symbol of resistance.”

Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez were found shot dead inside the Kurdish Institute of Paris. Screen grab of Firatnews.
Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez were found shot dead inside the Kurdish Institute of Paris. Screen grab of Firatnews.

One of the founders of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), Cansiz -- along with two other female activists -- was found dead with gunshot wounds inside a Kurdish institute in the heart of Paris on Thursday.

Nezan has little doubt that Cansiz, a close associate of the iconic PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Turkish jail, was “the real target” of the assassinations.

While French police sources have described the murders as an “execution style” killing, some members of the Kurdish institute say the bodies of the three women were found inside a locked room and that the gunman -- or gunmen -- had used a silencer.

Shortly after the news of her killing broke, social media sites such as Twitter were flooded with tributes and expressions of shock by the Kurdish diaspora across the world.

The PKK is born – and jailed

Born in the mountainous Tunceli province in eastern Turkey, Cansiz’ family belongs to the minority Alevis -- a historically persecuted sect that is considered an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Not much is known about Cansiz’ early years until 1978, when she was present at the founding meeting of the PKK in a village in the Diyarbakir province of south-eastern Turkey.

The meeting, called the First Constitutional Congress, was a milestone moment in the Kurdish resistance movement and the 20-odd members present went on to form PKK’s central committee.

In 1979, she was arrested and proceeded to spend the 1980s in Diyarbakir Prison, a notorious jail where more than 30 prisoners died of torture between 1981 and 1989, and hundreds more were injured for life.

“This Turkish prison is no holiday camp,” said Nezan. “It was very tough. She was repeatedly tortured but she was admired -- even by the Turkish prisoners -- as someone who was very courageous and she was respected for that.”

In a 1998 interview with the Kurdistan Report, Cansiz referred to that period as “a significant phase” that set the “stamp on the liberation struggle”.

Recalling that era, Cansiz noted that, “In the prisons, the enemy had a plan, which was to destroy the party by condemning and destroying the PKK prisoners. Against this plan the prison resistance came into being in a manner which was in the true spirit of the PKK.”

A fighting life under code name ‘Sara’

After her release in 1991, Cansiz is believed to have trained in the PKK camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which was then under Syrian control. After her stint in the Bekaa, Cansiz also fought in northern Iraq. At some point in her fighting years, she acquired the code name “Sara,” according to the Turkish English paper, the Hurriyet Daily.

In the mid-1990s, Cansiz was dispatched to Europe by Murat Karayilan, then the leader of the PKK's armed wing, according to the British daily, the Guardian. She spent some time in Germany before finally moving to France, where she was granted asylum.

While Cansiz was not a household name in France, there are indications that French authorities and security services were well aware of her stature in Kurdish resistance circles.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after the news of the murder broke, Armel Taverdin, a lawyer for one of the three women, maintained that the French police had plenty of evidence to work on in the case since, he said, at least two of the three victims had been under surveillance by the French police.

Taverdin, however, declined to disclose which of the victims were being monitored by law enforcement.

Old ties with the French left

Responding to the killings on Thursday, French President François Hollande described the crime as terrible, and said he had met one of the victims, as had many French politicians, because "she was regularly seeking to meet with us."

Nezan speculates that Cansiz was the victim the French president was referring to.

The presence in France of one of the founders of the PKK -- an outlawed militant group considered a terrorist organization by the EU, the US and Turkey among other countries -- has raised eyebrows in some international circles.

But Dorothée Schmid, an expert on Turkey at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, noted that during the 1980s, the French left was very active in supporting the Kurdish cause.

“When François Mitterrand was president, his wife [Danielle Mitterrand] very actively supported the cause, so the Kurdish question gained wide awareness among the French public,” said Schmid. “François Hollande’s reaction has to be understood in that context. It doesn’t mean he endorses the PKK or its stance on violence.”

But even in Europe, Cansiz was never free from scrutiny and occasional detentions.

According to a May 4, 2007 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Cansiz was arrested in the German city of Hamburg on March 19 on a Turkish arrest warrant distributed via Interpol.

She was released on April 25 and had “already returned to Paris,” the cable noted, after the Hamburg High Court ruled that “the request did not meet the minimum European requirements for extradition”.

“She was arrested several times, it happens to many prominent PKK and former PKK members, as well as Kurdish parliament members,” said Nezan. “That’s their life.”

‘She never married, she never had children’

A leftist Marxist group, the PKK’s ideology combines Kurdish nationalism with communist goals, such as equality and communal ownership of property. In theory, resistance to patriarchy forms one of the important tenets of PKK ideology and the group’s ranks have long included female fighters.

An eloquent women’s rights proponent, Cansiz insisted that women’s participation in the PKK’s armed struggle was not a “token gesture” nor were they “a showpiece”.

While she acknowledged “shortcomings” in female PKK members’ fight to achieve equality, Cansiz insisted that the group was “trying to build an egalitarian society for both men and women”.

When asked if Kurdish women would be “sent back home” after the revolution in a conservative society, Cansiz was adamant that “no man will ever dare to advance the old reactionary demands and attitudes”.

Revolution and resistance permeated every facet of her life, according to Cansiz’s associates, which meant she did not have too much of a private life.

“She never married, she never had children,” said Nezan. “In these revolutionary movements, people don’t get married, they say they are waiting for the victory of the struggle. The resistance becomes their life.”


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app