On 4 April, Abdullah Öcalan marks his 74th birthday: his 25th birthday in prison and his 3rd under conditions of total isolation. He has had no known contact with the outside world since a brief curtailed phone call with his brother on 25 March 2021.
There can be no celebrations for Öcalan himself, but, despite all the Turkish government’s attempts to banish him, his presence in Kurdish consciousness is stronger than ever. And not just in Kurdish consciousness. Öcalan’s ideas on how to live together and build a mutually supportive society, and the embodiment of these ideas in the Kurdish Freedom Movement, have inspired and brought hope to people across the globe.
Despite this – or perhaps, more accurately, because of this and the threat his ideas pose to those who benefit from the existing, world threatening, social system – when it comes to Öcalan, international organisations that are supposed to oversee international law on human rights do little more than go through the motions.
Rulings by the European Court of Human Rights are not followed up, and cases are dragged out over many years. Recommendations from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) are routinely ignored, without the Turkish government suffering any consequences. And the CPT refuses to confirm whether or not their delegation met with Öcalan last September or to give any information as to his health or condition.
Last July, Öcalan’s lawyers submitted an application to the United Nations Human Rights Committee requesting an injunction against the isolation imposed on Öcalan and the three other Imrali prisoners, which is contrary to all international human rights law. The full process is still ongoing, but, in September, the UN made clear that the isolation constituted torture and should be stopped immediately, with the prisoners allowed to meet their lawyers. When this produced no response from Turkey, the UN repeated their decision on 19 January, giving the Turkish government up to the end of March to respond. We are still waiting for news.
In Turkey itself, successive governments have generated such a climate of hatred around Öcalan that, outwith the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), politicians do not dare show him any sympathy, even on basic principles of human rights, which should apply to everyone. As one of Öcalan’s lawyers, Cengiz Yürekli, protests, “Everyone is talking about democracy and law. Which law are they talking about in a situation where isolation and torture continue? The government is doing it. So, what are their promises on Imrali? What do they say to this torture situation, which is completely against national and international laws and takes place in front of the society? Everyone should say this clearly. Will the Imrali isolation system continue after the election?” However, the main opposition Nation Alliance around the Republican People’s Party has little to say about how they will depoliticise the judiciary more generally and chooses not even to address the Kurdish Question.
When official representatives fall silent, it is left up to the people to push their demand for change and to ensure their voices cannot be ignored. Öcalan’s birthday will be marked with calls of solidarity and resistance wherever there are Kurds, and increasingly among international supporters for whom he represents the hope of a better future.