Did the CPT meet Öcalan?

Did the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture meet with Abdullah Öcalan when it visited Turkey in September? This is a simple but vital question, so why will they not answer it?

The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) was established as the continent’s guardian against the most brutal violation of human rights and is afforded unique access to Europe’s prisons. After repeated demands calling on them to meet Öcalan, the CPT included İmralı island prison in an ad hoc visit to Turkey in September. The CPT briefing put out following the visit explains that they went there, “in order to examine the treatment and conditions of detention of all (four) prisoners currently held in the establishment. In this connection, particular attention was paid to the communal activities offered to the prisoners and their contacts with the outside world.” Beyond this vaguely worded statement, no more information has been forthcoming. For the millions of Kurds who look to Öcalan as their political leader, and for everyone everywhere who see him as a source of liberatory politics and a key to peace in Turkey and beyond, the CPT’s visit, far from allaying fears, has only strengthened them.  Öcalan’s lawyers in Asrin Law Office have released a statement in which they say, “it has been rumored that during the CPT’s visit to İmralı Island in September 2022, Mr. Öcalan did not participate in an interview with the delegation. Unfortunately, we have not been able to confirm this rumor during our meeting with the CPT.”

In defiance of international law, there has been no physical contact with Öcalan, or with the other three prisoners on İmralı, since a family visit in March 2020. Major concerns about Öcalan’s wellbeing forced the authorities to allow a phone call with his brother in March 2021, which was cut short after a few minutes. That was Öalan’s last contact with the outside world. In this context the CPT visit could have helped end the agony and uncertainty resulting from the total lack of news.

CPT rules mean that the report of their visit won’t be made public until a year or eighteen months after the event, and then only with Turkey’s agreement. Asrin Law office observes that, “such a period of time may imply irreparable damage.” And they stress that “While we are certainly aware of the conventions and procedures binding the CPT, we also know that this does not prevent the CPT from providing information about the conditions of detention of our clients, from whom we have not heard for 20 months”

The history of the CPT’s visits to Öcalan, and of Turkey’s continued dismissal of their demands to end some of the worst aspects of the illegal prison regime, demonstrate how much the CPT’s powers are restricted. However, the CPT’s will to act even is even more limited. Öcalan’s lawyers point out that “Its founding values ​​and the international law to which it is bound require the CPT to provide information about its visit to İmralı Island, which is under its competence.” Kurds everywhere are calling on the CPT to break its silence.

Like so many international mechanisms, the CPT is proving little more than a charade. If blatant acts of torture can continue despite the weight of bureaucratic mechanisms, we have to ask if those mechanisms are worthless – or even if their otherwise futile existence serves to provide cover for the torture to continue.

Last week, other international mechanisms were also examining Öcalan and the PKK.

The Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the case submitted by Öcalan’s lawyers against Greece. The lawyers argue that Greece breached the European Convention on Human Rights when they handed Öcalan over to the Turkish authorities in 1999.

And in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued its latest ruling in the case against the inclusion of the PKK on the European Union’s Terrorist list. The court’s decision annuls the 2014 listing but rejects the PKK’s claim for 2014-2020. The PKK’s lawyers must now decide whether to appeal. A further ruling for 2020-2021 is expected on 14 December.

These court cases have the potential to make a difference, but, ultimately, what is on trial is not the PKK and its leader, it is the integrity of the international institutions. These institutions like to talk about rights and freedoms, but they are both unable and unwilling to help allow rights and freedoms to be a reality.