Italian politician Ramon Mantovani, who accompanied Abdullah Öcalan on the Russia-Rome plane, told ANF about Öcalan’s days in Rome and the conspiracy that led to his abduction.
30 January 2024 | ANF
As a Kurdish friend, you accompanied Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan on the plane from Russia to Italy. You were a member of the Italian Foreign Affairs Commission at the time. Was the Italian government aware of this situation? Did Öcalan come to Italy upon an invitation? Can you tell us a little bit about how this process developed?
My party (Communist Refoundation Party), since its birth in 1991 was and has always been in solidarity with the Kurdish cause.
A year before Öcalan’s arrival in Italy, the PKK contacted me to ask me to develop some parliamentary initiative, useful for supporting a new course of the Kurdish struggle consisting of a unilateral ceasefire and the prospect of a negotiation to resolve the conflict through negotiation of peace.
On 10 December 1997, the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Republic voted on my resolution, which was also discussed and signed by other deputies of other political groups, and unified in the dispositive part with another resolution of the National Alliance group, of which I accepted to include in mine only the last point regarding the prospect of an independent Kurdish state. It is worth remembering that, from a constitutional point of view, in Italy a resolution approved by a Commission or by the Assembly of the Chamber of Deputies or Senate is a document that represents the official position of Parliament, which is the supreme body of popular sovereignty. The Government has the duty to comply in its executive activity with the indications contained in the dispositive part of the resolutions.
Therefore, for the first (and unfortunately only) time, a European Union state took a position on the Kurdish issue, denouncing the existence of an armed conflict, the violations of international law by the Turkish army’s invasion of Iraq, the violations of human beings of the Kurdish populations, and indicated to his government to undertake initiatives to reach a political and negotiated solution to the conflict.
A few weeks after the approval of the resolution, the Minister of the Interior at the time, Giorgio Napolitano, responding to the protests from the Forza Italia group about the granting, by the Italian authorities, of refugee status to Kurdish citizens with Turkish passports, said that he was required to do so following the approval of the resolution of the Foreign Affairs Commission.
Some time later and following this initiative, which was obviously hailed by the PKK as a great success, President Öcalan told me that he was interested in meeting a delegation from our party.
In September 1998 a delegation composed of me, MP Walter De Cesaris and the Head of Peace Processes of the party’s Foreign Department, Alfio Nicotra, met President Ocalan in the Middle East.
The meeting was important for us and for Öcalan because we verified that our relations could go well beyond the traditional solidarity between left-wing political forces. We discovered that we had the same interest and concern for the negative innovations of capitalist globalization, that we thought that revolutionary forces had to think and act unitedly in the world and not limit themselves to relations of simple solidarity, that we considered peace and the negotiated solution of armed conflicts in the world as the only way to address and resolve international disputes, and also internal disputes in countries that did not recognize the existence and rights of their national minorities. Above all, we agreed that we had a problem in common. The possible entry of Turkey into the EU without the resolution of the conflict with the Kurdish people would have even more accentuated the antidemocratic and technocratic nature of the EU and vice versa the prospect of a peace process in Turkey would have been strengthened as a precondition for Turkey’s entry in the EU.
The meeting was made public by my party’s newspaper, “Liberazione, which gave it wide coverage.
What happened during your meeting with Öcalan and what topics did you discuss with Öcalan on the plane? What was the reason for Öcalan’s visit to Europe, in your opinion?
I learned about President Öcalan’s expulsion from Syria from the international press. Shortly thereafter, I was informed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation of Öcalan’s presence in Russia and of the possibility that the Duma would discuss the case and decide in favor of granting political asylum.
I knew nothing more until the late evening of 10 November 1998 when I was informed, by Kurdish leaders present in Italy, that President Öcalan was in danger in Russia as part of the government and part of the intelligence apparatus intended to hand him over to Turkey. And they told me that the President had decided to come to Italy although, he also had other alternatives, both because the Italian Parliament had had the most advanced position on the Kurdish question, and because he wanted to launch an appeal and a proposal for peace negotiations in a country of the EU, of NATO and with an important tradition of promotion and involvement in peace processes.
We immediately worked to help the President achieve his goal of coming to Italy and obtaining political refugee status. Evidently, we explored and turned to all the institutions and apparatus that were useful in some way to ensure that everything happened in the best possible way.
I will not give more details on our institutional contacts in Italy and with other countries.
It wasn’t easy, for many reasons. Turkey would have protested and taken reprisals, as it had already done after the approval of the resolution at the beginning of the year. There was an international arrest warrant against Öcalan of Germany, in addition to the Turkish ones. And it was clear from the beginning that as soon as he arrived in Italy, the President would be arrested, mainly due to the German arrest warrant, and that Italy would have to respond positively to Germany’s request for extradition.
Despite all the difficulties, which were many, we managed to prepare the conditions for the President to travel to Italy.
In the end, I, accompanied by a Kurdish friend, went to Moscow where I met President Öcalan at the same airport, in a basement of military offices manned by Russian intelligence agents. I explained to him the Italian situation and what would happen. He would have been arrested but not sent to prison but rather to a hospital due to the health problems he had, and in a few days, as per practice, a magistrate would certainly have set him free pending a possible extradition request from Germany. Obviously, I told him, if he had other alternatives, to consider them because no matter how much effort we had made, Italy being a country with de facto limited sovereignty, Turkey’s pressure on the US and on Italy, notoriously subordinate to the US, could have led to situations unexpected at any time.
He told me that he was determined to come to Italy, even if he had other alternatives, because he wanted to transform a difficulty into an opportunity, precisely by coming to a country like Italy, also home to the Vatican and therefore known very well throughout the world, to launch the proposal for peace negotiations, without any longer indicating an independent Kurdish state as the objective of a possible negotiation. He added that he had no problem with being extradited to Germany, as he considered that the charges against him were completely inconsistent and that he would be right in any trial.
So we took the first flight to Rome.
On the plane we talked about politics. I explained to him the new Italian situation, with a government presided over by D’Alema, as the previous one led by Prodi had fallen due to the rift between us and the government, and our opposition to the new government. But we also talked about less important and pleasant things like Italian and Turkish football.
A very important detail, as I will explain later, were my instructions on what to do upon arrival. I said that the best thing would be the following: The President, with his secretary and the Kurd who had traveled with me and who spoke Italian, would have to go to the border crossing reserved for diplomats, and identify themselves by asking for political asylum. The others who accompanied him (4 or 5 people in total) and myself would have passed the normal border post. I would not have accompanied the President to the diplomatic passage, despite having a service passport as a deputy, because we had considered that our entire role as a party in the affair remained confidential, in order to prevent the relevance of the presence in Italy and the message of peace of the President would be overshadowed by the small provincial controversies in Italian politics that would certainly have ignited if our involvement had been known.
Everything went as we had planned. The President asked for asylum, was arrested and was led away by a group of policemen, together with his secretary and the Kurd who had acted as a translator. He was taken to a hospital outside Rome. He was assisted by two important lawyers (Giuliano Pisapia and Luigi Saraceni, both deputies of the Italian Republic), and a few days later a magistrate set him free. The office of the Kurds in Italy, with the help of the Italian intelligence services, given the security problems that would have arisen, rented a small villa on the outskirts of Rome which would then be Öcalan’s residence until his departure, guarded by the maximum deployment of the Italian special forces, who even installed tools to foil a missile attack.
What was the attitude of the then Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema towards Öcalan’s visit to Italy? What happened diplomatically during Öcalan’s stay in Italy?
The President of the Italian government held a position that we can define as cold and distant towards Öcalan and more generally towards the Kurdish cause. And this is understandable given Italy’s international position and the large trade exchanges with Turkey, especially in the military sector, as Italy is a leading supplier for Turkey. In a parliamentary debate, responding to attacks from right-wing parties, he defended the correctness and legality of the actions of the Italian institutions, which had arrested Öcalan as he was being chased by a German arrest warrant and who had taken note of his asylum request formulated at the time of arrest. But he didn’t say something that we only discovered several weeks later when I received a notice from the judiciary as being under investigation for the crime of aiding and abetting illegal entry. The police report relating to Öcalan’s arrival was false. It was written that Öcalan had attempted to cross the border with a false document and that, once recognized, he had been arrested. I was then acquitted of the accusation for the simple reason that in the interrogation they gave me I explained that President Öcalan had turned to the passage of diplomatic passports at the airport, accompanied by his secretary and a Kurd resident in Italy, and that such behavior was absolutely incompatible with the attempt to cross the border with false documents. And I asked the magistrates to verify it by viewing the videos recorded by the airport security cameras. To my surprise, the magistrate who was questioning me concluded the interrogation by saying that he believed me also because the recordings of the hours of our arrival at the airport had “mysteriously” disappeared.
All this to say that the President of the government, Massimo D’Alema, behaved seriously incorrectly from an institutional point of view, given that the order to falsify the minutes relating to Öcalan’s arrival, even if it was not officially issued by him, could not have been unknown to him. And if the head of government had been kept in the dark about such a violation of legality, once he learned the truth, he would have had to identify and prosecute any state officials who were unfaithful to the Italian Republic and obedient to foreign services. Which obviously never happened.
Do you think there was pressure on the Italian government to get Öcalan out of Italy? Which countries put such political pressure on Italy?
The Turkish government led by Ecevit canceled numerous military and civil contracts worth billions of euros, recalled the ambassador for consultations, and unleashed a campaign against Italy and the Italian government. And he asked for Öcalan’s extradition to Turkey.
I understand that D’Alema privately but also publicly insisted strongly on Germany requesting Öcalan’s extradition. Which Germany never did.
The US government, through Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, publicly asked Italy to extradite Öcalan to Turkey. In addition to being a very serious interference in affairs that did not concern the US but only Italy and Turkey, this request was even more serious because the US asked the Italian government to violate the laws of its own country, which prevented extraditing a prisoner to a country where he could be sentenced to the death penalty. Something that the US government could not ignore also because of the sole fact that never, and these are several cases, has Italy satisfied the request for the extradition of US citizens subject to a death sentence in the US, precisely for this reason. If it got to the point of making public pressure of this type, one can imagine how much pressure was made in private. One of these was to bring out the news of my activity for President Öcalan’s visit to Italy. It was the American intelligence services that released the news in Greece, according to which there were an Italian deputy and two Greek deputies on the plane with Öcalan. Fake news because it was only me but useful enough to ensure that the Italian press went wild looking for the “culprit”. A few months earlier, my party’s newspaper had published an account of our meetings with Öcalan in the Middle East, complete with photographs, and several journalists began trying to get confirmation of their suspicions from me or from the party. Furthermore, I was informed by a right-wing MP that Silvio Berlusconi had called a press conference on internal political topics, during which he would point to me as the “culprit” of having “brought” a terrorist to Italy (the PKK was not, at the time, even on the list of terrorist organizations of the EU), of having caused very serious economic damage to the country and of having created a serious diplomatic crisis between two allied countries such as Italy and Turkey. Therefore, on 25 November 1998, I was forced to call a press conference before Berlusconi in which I said that I had indeed, at his request, helped Öcalan come to Italy to ask for asylum, proclaim a unilateral ceasefire and propose a peace negotiation to Turkey. As predictable, the usual pseudo-political brawl broke out and the vast majority of newspapers and TV said that I had “brought” Öcalan to Italy to damage the government, the country and so on. For once, D’Alema said something that was completely acceptable. He declared: “Öcalan doesn’t seem like a person who needs to be brought by anyone”. How could one disagree! The leader of a population of tens of millions of people, head of a guerrilla war that since the beginning of the 80s had stood up to the strongest NATO army after the US one, according to many Italian journalists and exponents of right-wing parties and also of the center-left, as ignorant as they are biased, would have needed to be “brought” by me to Italy to spite the government!