Turkey’s illegal legal games

Twice a week, Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyers make an official request to visit him in prison; but their applications are left unanswered. Apart from five visits following the massive hunger strike that ended in May 2019, they have not been allowed to see their client for over eleven years. This is, of course, contrary to international human rights law, and it is also contrary to the law in Turkey itself.

Rather than simply say that there will be no visits allowed, the Turkish authorities play games with the lawyers – and with the international systems that are set up to oversee the rule of law. In the past they made excuses that the boat was unable to travel to İmralı island. Now they claim that Öcalan has been issued with disciplinary punishments. And as soon as one punishment ends, another begins. His lawyers were told that his last punishment finished on 18th October, so applied to visit after that date; but were then finally informed on 26th that another six-month ban had begun on 21st. They will, of course, appeal, but they have not even been told the reason given for the punishment.

Öcalan’s isolation and the bans on visits from his lawyers and family are the subject of discussion between Turkey and the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). The CPT visits and writes reports, but there is little pressure on Turkey to put their recommendations into action. The reports are not even made public until after Turkey has had a chance to respond – and not even then if Turkey does not wish it.

The Council of Europe member states – of which Turkey is one – are also subject to the Council’s European Court of Human Rights. Back in 2014, the court found Turkey guilty of denying Öcalan his basic right to hope through sentencing him to life without the chance of parole. Last December, the Council’s Committee of Ministers, which is tasked with ensuring that judgements are acted on, finally asked Turkey to let them know, by the end of September, what plan they had to act on the judgement. Two weeks late, Turkey submitted a document that stated – in rather more long-winded terms – that this was Turkey’s punishment for terrorists, and they were not going to do anything to change it. Yet again – as in the much more publicised cases of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş – Turkey is cocking a snook at the Council’s most important institution and playing games with its credibility.

It is doubtful if the ministers will lose much sleep over Öcalan’s case, but they must know that for human rights to mean anything, they have to be universal.