ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Clad in olive green battle fatigues and clutching an assault rifle, Sakine Cansiz looked every inch the rebel as she posed for a photo next to Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Drawn to leftist revolutionary circles as a student in the 1970s, Cansiz helped found the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), going from guerrilla fighter to one of its main financiers in Europe over three decades, and becoming an iconic figure for Kurdish women seeking a Kurdish state.
In the early hours of Thursday, colleagues found her body slumped on the floor of an office in Paris where she had been executed with a bullet to the head - an abrupt end to a life at the heart of the Kurdish insurgency she helped build.
“We grew up hearing about Sakine Cansiz, how she withstood torture when she was in prison, spitting in the face of her torturers,” Sebahat Tuncel, an MP for Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told Reuters.
“She was a very important name for Kurdish women. She was a feminist, and her struggle was always double-edged: against male dominance and for Kurdish rights,” she said.
Cansiz was key figure in the PKK, whose armed struggle for greater Kurdish autonomy has burned at the heart of the Turkish nation for three decades, right up to her death.
The group, designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union, is reviled by most Turks who see it as responsible for a conflict that has killed 40,000 people as it tries to carve up Turkish territory.
As a key member of the group, she would have been a hate figure for many Turks who saw her as a terrorist intent on breaking up the Turkish state by violent means.
“The PKK have suddenly become the defender of human rights, as if it’s not the organisation that brutally massacred 40,000 people,” wrote Mehmet Turker in a column for the Sozcu newspaper, reflecting on the Paris killings.
U.S. officials saw Cansiz as one of two key targets in efforts to halt financial aid from Europe to the mountains of northern Iraq, where PKK leaders and most militants are based, according to a 2007 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks.
Born in the eastern Turkish province of Tunceli in 1958, Cansiz began associating with revolutionaries in her youth in the early 1970s, much to her family’s displeasure, eventually fleeing her home for Ankara, where she first met Ocalan.
“In a sense I abandoned the family. I did not accept that pressure, insisting on revolutionism. That’s how I left and went to Ankara. In secret of course,” she said in an account of the years leading up to the founding of the PKK, published by Firat, a news agency close to the rebel group.
“A belief emerged that it was necessary to join that movement, dedicate everything to it.”
She was in awe of Ocalan, a drop-out from Ankara University’s political science faculty who forged his political ideas among violent street battles between left- and right-wing gangs before raising the Kurdish nationalist banner.
“We would listen carefully to every word that came out of his mouth,” Cansiz said.
“With each minute, each discussion, the burden grew, awakening a feeling of the scale of this revolution, that this revolution would not be easy, that it needed to be conducted patiently and carefully,” she said.
When Ocalan gathered around 20 people at a village house in the Lice district of Diyarbakir, in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, to establish the PKK in November 1978, Cansiz was among the only women in attendance.
“I formed a women’s organisation as I wanted to create a powerful woman and escape from male feudalism,” Ocalan said of Cansiz in testimony to a state commission when he was captured in 1999, describing her as a party loyalist.
After a period establishing the PKK in the eastern province of Elazig, Cansiz was caught in a police raid around the time of Turkey’s 1980 military coup and she spent the next decade in jail in Diyarbakir, where she was said to have been tortured.
“She was always plain-spoken and was not afraid of an argument, even with her own organisation. Sakine Cansiz was a fighter,” said Eren Keskin, a lawyer who first met Cansiz in 1991 while defending members of the PKK.
“Sakine was a feminist before everything else. She possessed a woman’s perspective, even on war.”
Female militants have played a significant role in the PKK’s insurgency, partly reflecting a principle of equality within the group’s Marxist ideology. In some cases, a desire to avenge the killing of other family members was the motivation for joining, for others it was a way out of family repression.
“Women have always been a part of the movement. Tens of thousands of women have taken up arms, and she represented them,” said Paris-based lawyer Franck Cecen, who last met Cansiz in November at a meeting of Kurdish exiles.
Code-named Sara, Cansiz was an active militant fighter in the 1990s before obtaining asylum in France after apparently falling out with some PKK leaders. Ocalan alluded to this and her party loyalty in his testimony after his capture in 1999.
“Sakine was relieved of duty and is in Europe. France has given her a passport. She keeps things to herself. She is bound to the party in feelings and thoughts,” he said at the time.
During the 1990s, media reports emerged intermittently saying Cansiz had been killed by the PKK. But Kurdish politicians and activists poured cold water on the idea that PKK infighting was behind her death.
In a statement on its website, the group said she had “put her stamp” on the leadership of “the women’s army”.
Cansiz had been in charge of the group’s civil affairs in Europe and remained an influential figure in exile, according to the diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks.
“Sakine Cansiz is a PKK financier and weapons and tactical strategist,” the 2007 cable said.
Turkey identified her as a “priority PKK leader to bring to justice”, but despite being detained by German police on a Turkish arrest warrant in 2007 she was released weeks later by a Hamburg court due to insufficient evidence.
Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, which is close to the government, said Cansiz was believed to have been only paying a brief visit to the Paris office when she was killed, and had been due in Cologne to meet PKK representatives there.
It was not clear what role she may have played in nascent talks between Turkey and Ocalan, held in virtual isolation on an island prison in the Marmara Sea for the past 14 years, but those who knew her doubted she would have been sidelined.
“She had an important role in the Kurdish diaspora. She was a part of the Kurdish nationalist struggle until the end,” said the BDP’s Tuncel.
“There is no one in the Kurdish movement, man or woman, young or old, who does not know who Sakine Cansiz is. She is a major figure. The murder was an attack on the Kurdish spirit.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood