Justice delayed is justice denied – and hope deferred is no hope at all

A few days before launching this website, we heard that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) had just made a visit to the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in the Turkish island prison of İmralı. This visit has been an insistent demand from those who care about Kurdish freedom, peace in the Middle East, and basic human rights; but what have we gained from it – and how did we come to be struggling for such a basic step?

Öcalan has been in İmralı for over 23 years, since being abducted in 1999 by an international conspiracy. He was quickly condemned to death, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole when Turkey abolished the death penalty. In 2005, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his trial was unfair, but nothing has been done to remedy this.

In 2014, the European Court responded to applications made by Öcalan in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007, and ruled that his sentence of life without parole is a form of torture as it denies him the fundamental right of hope. Nothing more was done to follow this up until December 2021. Then, the Council’s Committee of Ministers asked the Turkish government to inform them by September what they were doing to comply with the legal standards. September has come and gone, but there seems no word of further action. There is nothing on the Committee’s agenda.

And, returning to the CPT, this is their ninth visit to İmralı. After each visit they make recommendations, the Turkish government gives its response, and very little changes. In fact, many things have got a lot worse. Öcalan’s lawyers have not been allowed to see their client since 2011, apart from a cluster of five visits in response to the massive hunger strike undertake by 8000 people in 2019. His family has been allowed only five visits since 2014. Before the CPT’s visit, Öcalan had not had contact with the outside world since a four-minute phone call with his brother eighteen months ago. And even after a few other prisoners were brought to the island, Öcalan was allowed only very limited time in their company. This isolation is completely forbidden by international law.

Turkey has shown no intention of ending its law-breaking. On the contrary: the vindictive brutality practised in İmralı has become a model for the increasing mistreatment of thousands of other political prisoners.

And what have we learnt from the CPT’s latest visit? All we know is that they met all the four prisoners in İmralı, and that ‘particular attention was paid to the communal activities offered to the prisoners and their contacts with the outside world’. By the time the delegation has written up their findings and allowed the Turkish government to respond, it will be at least a year before their report is published – assuming that Turkey gives permission for its publication. We can take the visit as confirmation that Öcalan is still alive, but it doesn’t give us much more than that.

Meanwhile, hundreds of lawyers from across the world have been protesting Öcalan’s isolation by declaring their willingness to act for him and demanding to visit their client. They know that this is not, ultimately, a legal process but a political one. Their action is another step in the international campaign that aims to make the current political inaction untenable.

Next week, to coincide with the anniversary of Öcalan’s expulsion from Syria on 9 October 1998, which ended in his abduction the following February – and also with the Autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – some of those lawyers will be joining a three-day protest outside the Council building.