This afternoon, the head of the division responsible for Turkey at the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) met with representatives of the Syrian Initiative for Freedom of Leader Abdullah Öcalan. Khanem Ayo and Idris Said brought with them a petition with 2,646,211 signatures calling on the CPT to play their part in helping to end Öcalan’s isolation and enable visits by his lawyers and his family, and to work towards his release. The signatories come from Aleppo, Damascus, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and – about 2 million of them – from North and East Syria. The population of North and East Syria is only around 5 million people, of whom around 35 % are under 16 so unlikely to be signing a petition. 2 million is over 60% of the remaining population. Ayo and Said were accompanied by Fayik Yagizay, the representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to the European Institutions.
After hearing about the huge support shown for Öcalan, not just by the Kurds but also by the other inhabitants of North and East Syria, and the importance given to him, the representatives of the CPT talked about the organisation’s many visits to İmralı and the other work they do in between. With respect to their most recent visit last September, they said that the delegation met with Öcalan and the other three prisoners, and that the CPT report was with the Turkish government for their response, as procedure demands. Of course, we want more news than this – and lawyers have pointed out that, if circumstances make this necessary, there is scope within the rules to provide some basic information even while the full report has not been made public. However, the CPT’s words make clear that the story that Öcalan refused to meet with their delegation was simply a malicious rumour, like earlier rumours of his death. When there is no contact allowed, there is always a risk that any information leaked out of the prison may be intended to confuse.
Before they went to the meeting, Ayo and Said answered my questions about the support for the petition and for Öcalan’s ideas. I began by asking how the signatures were collected. Said explained that after the petition was suggested, they put together organising committees to focus on different groups of people: youth, women, different ethnic groups, different cities and villages, and they went round from door to door. They began collecting signatures on 12 January and finished with a press conference in Qamishlo on 13 March. Öcalan had built a huge base of respect and support from all Syrian peoples when he was based there for nearly two decades (from 1979-1998), and participation in the signature campaign was intense, including enormous participation among the Arabs.
In response to my question about the extent of Öcalan’s impact when he was in Syria, Said spoke from his memory of taking part in activities all over Syria, and stressed, again, how, for Öcalan, contact with all the different ethnic groups was a priority.
I asked how Öcalan’s ideas were kept alive after he was thrown out of Syria in 1998. Ayo said that although Öcalan was physically captured, his ideas and philosophy spread even more than before – and that the women’s struggle played an important role in this, due to the important place of women in Öcalan’s philosophy. Because the philosophy was kept alive, they could use the opportunity that arose to put it into practice. Öcalan’s philosophy was linked to the Kurds’ desire for freedom. The Rojava Revolution had two targets: the freedom of peoples and the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan.
Said explained that when Öcalan was in Syria, he had thousands of face-to-face meetings. Thousands of young people joined the PKK, and over 5,000 were killed in the struggle. After Öcalan had been thrown out of Syria, relations improved between Syria and Turkey and Kurds in Syria suffered severe government oppression. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured, or disappeared. Said himself was detained four times. A lot of people were in prison when the Rojava Revolution started, and a lot of other people [like Mazloum Abdi, now Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces] came to Syria to support the revolution.
I asked about the roles of people who were active in Öcalan’s time, and those politicised in the revolution. Said began his answer by stating that there would have been no revolution in Rojava without Öcalan, and that even before the revolution, families influenced by Öcalan were active in defending their areas from attacks by the Syrian regime or by Jihadi groups. And he again stressed how the participation of different ethnicities – which is now systematised to ensure different groups play a full part in organisational structures – dated back to Öcalan’s time in Syria.
Khanem Ayo is herself an example of someone who became politically active after the revolution. For her, the spur was the assassination of her uncle in 2012, when he was trying – as president of his local council – to negotiate peace with members of Jabhat ul-Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda that is now part of Hayʼat Tahrir al-Sham).
When I asked about difficulties in spreading Öcalan’s ideas to non-Kurdish areas, such as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, Said said that, initially, people were reluctant to go to these areas, but that Öcalan reminded them of their revolutionary duty. This was during the 2013-15 Peace Process so communication with Öcalan was possible.
Ayo observed that Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor suffered a lot under ISIS – especially the women – so they were ready to welcome this different ideology and its democracy. Although there still are people who are sympathetic to the Syrian regime or to ISIS, most people, she observed, ‘are on our side’.