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Newroz, Öcalan, and Freedom

Newroz, the spring new year festival, was always a time of hope and renewal, and, with the Kurdish Freedom Movement, it has become a time of resistance against oppression. This year, Newroz took place amidst deep sorrow following February’s devastating earthquakes, and amidst heightened concern over the situation of Abdullah Öcalan, who, on Saturday 25 March, will have had no known communication with the world outside his prison walls for two whole years. It is possible that he spoke to the delegation from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which visited İmralı prison last September, but there are claims he did not see them, and as the CPT refuses to deny or confirm their visit or give any indication of his condition, this possibility effectively counts for nothing.

Furthermore, the Newroz celebrations have come under attack. Four people were killed by one of the Turkish-backed militias in Turkish-occupied Afrîn, over fifty people were wounded by Iranian government forces, and hundreds of people were detained at the celebrations in Turkey.

However, there is cause for hope, too – hope from the massive Kurdish resistance, many of whose most active members were not even born when Öcalan was captured; and hope from the forthcoming elections, which may provide the opportunity for Turkey to reverse its decent into authoritarianism and even to begin to talk about a solution to the Kurdish Question. As Ahmet Türk, of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) told the crowds at the celebration in Amed (Diyarbakir), “today the Kurdish people are an important actor for the construction of a democratic republic”.

As always, Öcalan’s presence dominated the celebrations, even in places where it is not possible to show his image.  In the mass celebrations in Turkey, Öcalan’s freedom and the vital role he can play in bringing a future peace were the subject of speeches from the podium, which were backed by defiant chants of “Bijî Serok Apo” (Long Live Leader Öcalan).

With hopes for a revival of peace talks in the air, this seems an appropriate time to remember Öcalan’s historic prison letter that was read out to a crowd of two million people at the Amed Newroz celebrations of 2013. (The following translation is reproduced from the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan)


I salute the people of the Middle East and Central Asia celebrating this awakening, revival and resurgence day of Newroz with extraordinary participation and unity…

I salute all the peoples celebrating Newroz, which is the daylight and turning point of a new era, with great enthusiasm and democratic tolerance…

I salute all the travellers on this grand path toward democratic rights, freedom and equality…

I salute you, the Kurdish people, living at the Zagros and Taurus mountain skirts and in the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. I salute the Kurdish people, an ancient people, dwellers in the sacred lands of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, mother to all agricultural, village and urban civilizations….

Kurds have taken part in this several-thousand-year-old civilization in friendship and accord with diverse races, religions, creeds – we have all built it together. For Kurds, the [rivers] Euphrates and Tigris are the siblings of Sakarya and Maritsa. [Mountains] Ararat and Judi are the friends of Kaçkars and Erciyes. [Folk dances] Halay and Delilo are in the family of Horon and Zeybek.

These grand civilizations, these coexisting communities have more recently been pitted against each other by political pressure, external interventions and group interests. The result has been the construction of systems that are not based upon rights, law, equality and freedom.

For the last two hundred years military conquests, western imperialist interventions, as well as repression and policies of denial have tried to submerge the Arabian, Turkic, Persian and Kurdish communities to the rule of nation states, its imaginary borders and artificial problems.

The era of exploitative regimes, repression and denial is over. The peoples of the Middle East and those of Central Asia are awakening. They are returning to their roots. They demand a halt to the blinding and seditious wars and conflicts against one another.

Those thousands, millions of people who are pouring into these arenas are burning with the passion of Newroz. They cry for peace and amity, and they are demanding a solution.

This struggle, which began as my own individual rebellion against the despair, ignorance and slavery into which I was born, has sought to create a new consciousness, a new understanding and a new spirit. Today I see that our efforts have reached a new level.

Our fight has not been and can never against any specific race, religion, sect, or group. Our fight has been against repression, ignorance and injustice, against enforced underdevelopment as well as against all forms of oppression.

Today we are awakening to a new Turkey and a new Middle East.

The youth who have welcomed my call, the eminent women who heeded my call, friends who have accepted my discourse and all people who can hear my voice:

Today a new era is beginning.

The period of armed struggle is ending, and the door is opening to democratic politics.
We are beginning a process focused on political, social and economic aspects; an understanding based on democratic rights, freedoms, and equality is growing.

We have sacrificed much of our lives for the Kurdish people, we paid a high price. None of these sacrifices, none of our struggles, were in vain. For as a consequence of them, the Kurdish people have attained once again their identity and their roots.

We have now reached the point of “silence the weapons and let the ideas and politics speak.” The modernist paradigm that has disregarded, excluded and denied us has been razed to the ground. Regardless of whether it be Turkish, Kurdish, Laz or Circassian – the blood spilled is flowing from a human being and from the bosom of this land.

Witnessed by the millions of people who heed my call, I say a new era is beginning; an era where politics gain prominence over weapons. We have now arrived at the stage of withdrawing our armed forces outside the borders.

I believe that all those who have believed in this cause and me are sensitive to the possible dangers of the process.

This is not an end, but a new beginning. This is not abandoning the struggle – we are initiating a different struggle.

The creation of geographies based on ethnicity and a single nation is an inhuman fabrication of modernity that denies our roots and our origins.

A great responsibility falls on all of us to create an equal, free and democratic country of all peoples and cultures, befitting the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia. On this occasion of Newroz, I call on the Armenians, Turkomans, Assyrians, Arabs and all other peoples just as much as on the Kurds to behold the flame of freedom and equality – the fire that is lit here today – and embrace it as their own.

Distinguished people of Turkey;

The Turkish people who live in what is called Turkey today – the ancient Anatolia – should recognise that their common life with the Kurds, under the flag of Islam, rests on the principles of amity and solidarity. The rules of amity has and should have no room for conquest, denial, rejection, forced assimilation, or annihilation.

The last century’s repressive, annihilationist, and assimilationist policies, based on capitalist modernity, represent the efforts of a ruling elite to deny a long history of amity. They do not represent the will of the people. It is now very clear that this grip of tyranny contradicts both history and rules of amity. In order to be able to leave that lamentable past behind, I call on the two strategic powers of the Middle East to build a democratic modernity befitting our culture and civilization.

The time has come for dispute, conflict, and enmity to yield to alliance, unity, blessings, and a mutual embrace.

The Turks and Kurds who fell as martyrs together at Çanakkale also went through the War of Independence together, and together they opened the 1920 assembly.

Our common past is a reality that requires us to create a common future. Today the spirit that established the Turkish Grand Assembly leads the way to the new era.

I call on all oppressed peoples; on women, who are the most long-standing colonized and subjugated class; on all marginalized and excluded creeds, cults, and cultures; on the working class and all subordinated classes; on everyone who has been excluded from the system to take their rightful position in Democratic Modernity and to attain its mentality.

The Middle East and Central Asia are searching for a contemporary modernity and a democratic order that befits their own history. A new model in which all can coexist peacefully and amicably has become an objective need like the need for bread and water. Inevitably, again, the geography and culture of Anatolia and Mesopotamia are guiding it to build such a model.

We are experiencing a more current, more complicated, and more profound version of the War of Independence that developed in the framework of the [1920] National Pact.

Despite all the mistakes, setbacks, and failures of the past ninety years, we are once again trying to build a model with all the peoples, classes, and cultures who have been victims and have suffered through terrible disasters. I call on all of you to step forward and help achieve an egalitarian, free, and democratic social organization.

I call on the Kurds, Turkoman, Assyrians and Arabs who were separated despite the National Pact and today have been condemned to live under grave problems and in conflict with one another within the Syrian and Iraqi Arab Republic to begin discussions, and re-asses as well as to take decisions on their present reality in a “National Solidarity and Peace Conference”.

The breadth and comprehensiveness of the “WE” concept has an important place within the history of this land. But in the hands of the narrow and ruling elitists, “WE” has been reduced to “ONE.” It is time to give the “WE” concept its old spirit and to implement it.

We shall unite against those who want to divide and make us fight one another. We shall join together against those who want to separate us.

Those who cannot understand the spirit of the age will end up in the dustbin of history. Those who resist the current will fall into the abyss.

The peoples of the region are witnessing a new dawn. The peoples of the Middle East are weary of enmity, conflict, and war. They want to be reborn from their own roots and to stand shoulder to shoulder.

This Newroz is a beacon to us all.

The truths in the messages of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are being implemented in our lives today with new tidings. People are trying to regain what they have lost.

We do not deny the values of the contemporary civilisation of the West in whole. We indeed take the values of enlightenment, equality, freedom and democracy, and in order to implement them we synthesise them with our own existential values and lifeways.

The basis of the new struggle is thoughts, ideology and democratic politics, and to be able to start a great democratic leap forward.

Greetings to all those who have contributed to this process and strengthened it, and to all to those who have supported the peaceful democratic solution!

I salute all those who take responsibility for the amicable, equal and democratic freedom of peoples!

Long live Newroz, long live the amity of peoples!

Öcalan at the EU

When the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) held their first conference in the European Parliament in 2004, it was not deemed safe to speak about Abdullah Öcalan. At their 17th conference, held last week, Öcalan’s situation and his importance for resolving the Kurdish Question were recurrent themes, and the first panel session was dedicated to discussing İmralı.

As Barbara Spinelli, co-chair of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights, noted in the introduction to that session, Öcalan’s situation is unique in Europe. He is serving an in-life death sentence, and if this is tolerated by the European institutions, they become complicit.

Raziye Öztürk, one of Öcalan’s lawyers, explained that the European institutions need first to abide by their own laws. That means not leaving Öcalan’s case pending for twelve years, and not allowing Turkey to fail to implement the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT).

Another of Öcalan’s lawyers, Mahmoud Shakar, spoke about the importance of removing the PKK from terrorism listings – observing that the decision to classify the PKK as terrorists has been a political and not a legal one, and that the EU listing was made at a time when the PKK had declared a ceasefire and had called for a peaceful resolution.

Meral Beştaş, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Group Deputy Chair, described Öcalan’s situation as unprecedented, and absolutely unlawful. And Ilhan Ahmad, Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, stressed the vital importance of Öcalan’s involvement in solving the Kurdish Question.

The final conference resolution stated:

A historical and long overdue necessity is the opening of the gates of Imrali prison, which as a lawless space is the starting point for the most massive human rights violations in Turkey’s prisons. The European Union, the Council of Europe and in particular the CPT are called upon to exhaust all mechanisms to end the lawlessness on Imrali and to allow lawyers unrestricted access to the island. The EUTCC Conference calls for a return to dialogue between the Turkish state and the PKK and the release of Abdullah Öcalan as a precondition for a sustainable solution.

Öcalan has not been able to communicate with anyone outside İmralı prison for almost two years, but he was very much present in Brussels last week.

A dark day in a dark time

This year’s long march for internationalists passed through Switzerland

The Kurdish calendar includes many commemorations of atrocities committed against the Kurdish people, often of massacres of large groups of people. On 15 February, Kurds mark the attempted assassination of hope: an international attack on the Kurdish people in the person of one man, the undisputed leader of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Abdullah Öcalan.

15 February is known as Roja Reş, the Dark Day. It was on this day, 24 years ago, that an international conspiracy, led by the CIA, abducted Öcalan from the Greek embassy in Nairobi, where he had taken refuge in his search for asylum, and handed him over to Turkey. Within five months, he had been condemned to death. When Turkey stopped capital punishment, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and to what has become a living death. It is almost two years since Öcalan was allowed to speak with anyone outside the prison. His last contact was a phone call with his brother that was cut short after a few minutes.

In other years, 15 February has been marked with a major demonstration in Strasbourg, as the home of European institutions for human rights. In the preceding week, long marches set out from different places to highlight the call for Öcalan’s freedom, and many of these converge on Strasbourg. But this year, the Strasbourg demonstration was cancelled as Kurds everywhere responded to the horrors unfolding in Turkey and Syria in the wake of the earthquake on 6 February. Hardly a Kurdish family has been left untouched. It is a very dark time: a time of grieving, but also a time of organising – of doing everything possible to help the survivors and to make sure that aid gets to those who need it and is not appropriated by the Turkish government.

The capture of Öcalan, and the Turkish government’s failure to build on any of his many attempts to negotiate a peaceful and dignified future for Kurds in Turkey, are symptomatic of a centralised, increasingly autocratic, and ethnic nationalist state: a state whose brutal deficiencies have been exposed to the world in the catastrophic failures of their earthquake preparation and response. In the Turkish government’s reaction to the earthquake, we see the same focus on the aggrandisement of state power, the same intolerance of other forms of organisation, the same prejudice against minority groups, as have always underlain Turkey’s approach to the Kurds and to Öcalan – and that have only grown in recent years.

Despite everything, hope was not destroyed 24 years ago. Öcalan’s importance and the spread of his ideas have only strengthened. The philosophy that he expanded during long isolated years in prison has inspired people throughout the world. It has inspired the Rojava revolution, and given strength to Kurdish politics in Turkey. This morning I was contacted by a comrade in Kenya, the country from where Öcalan was abducted. Comrade B is part of the Grassroots Liberation Movement which is inspired by Öcalan’s ideas. He used a famous quote from the Mau Mau who led Kenya’s independence struggle: ‘we are everywhere’.

In the earthquakes zone, in contrast to the controlling hand of a government that has shown itself to be more interested in its own image than in helping earthquake survivors, Turkey has seen a huge flowering of mutual aid. This is what happens after disasters. Despite media scaremongering, the great majority of people are ready to help each other, and the most effective organisation comes from the people themselves. In Turkey the effectiveness of this self-organisation has been greatly enhanced by the well-rooted networks of organisations, activists, and politicians built up by the Kurdish Freedom Movement in line with ideas of bottom-up democracy inspired by Öcalan. These networks were able to move quickly into action and reach people and areas untouched by the official authorities. The government has tried to stop them. Rather than focus on saving lives themselves, the state wants to ensure that no other organisation can be seen to help those in need. And years of oppression and detentions, including the removal of almost all elected mayors, have prevented Kurdish structures from reaching anything like their full potential. But the ongoing mobilisation demonstrates the lived reality of Öcalan’s grassroots organising and its power to respond to real human needs.

International Delegation Against Isolation – final statement

An international delegation has been meeting with key organisations in Turkey to find out more about the situation of Abdullah Öcalan and the other prisoners in İmralı and about judicial oppression in Turkey. The 36 people – mainly lawyers but including politicians, journalists, and academics – came from various European countries and also South Africa. Over a busy three days, they visited Ankara, Istanbul and Amed (Diyarbakir) and held meetings with the families of the İmralı prisoners and with their lawyers, as well as with human rights organisations, the Turkish Medical Association, bar associations, progressive political parties, and other organisations. Their visit culminated in an International Forum Against Isolation in Istanbul. Below are their initial findings and recommendations:

  • Exceeding the notion of isolation, the practices in İmralı Prison have created a situation where the inmates are completely cut off from all contact with the outside world. It is therefore imperative to perceive this state of affairs not only as a legal, but also as a political problem.
  • Unless it puts İmralı Prison at the center of its understanding of the Kurdish issue and takes sides by addressing the political and social aspects of this problem, the democratic public is partly responsible for the current state of isolation.
  • The regime of isolation affects not only Abdullah Öcalan and political prisoners in Turkey, but the entire social opposition. The order of exploitation encroaches on our lives in their totality. This encirclement can only be overcome through only a joint legal, political and social struggle.
  • It is alarming that the lawyers and human rights defenders who carry out legal activities to assist the prisoners in İmralı Prison, where all rights are suspended, are prevented from doing their work and subjected to investigations and prosecutions. This itself is an indication of how much the field of law and human rights has come under attack, both as a profession and as a normative framework.
  • It is unacceptable for European states to ignore the ECHR and other international conventions for the sake of their own interests while we witness universal human rights values being dismantled and pulled from under our feet. At this stage, in the face of such connivance, it has become imperative to organize a network that pursues the struggle for rights and law on a global level.
  • We once again call on those in positions of responsibility in Turkey to urgently restore the rule of law in İmralı Prison. Reminding them their responsibilities regarding the current state of affairs, we call on all European states not to sacrifice fundamental human rights to geopolitical and economic interests.
  • The approach to İmralı Prison and the legal and political practices in the prison are a litmus test of the democratic standards and political situation in Turkey.
  • The Kurdish issue and concomitant problems such as poverty, hunger, migration and refugees, gender-based inequalities and violence, cultural erosion, and environmental destruction caused by the war cannot be resolved without ending the incommunicado detention and the systematic violation of the prohibition of torture in İmralı Prison. The situation in the prison is of critical importance for Turkey’s democratization and the possibility of solving mentioned problems.
  • The discriminatory execution regime against political prisoners, which was first implemented in İmralı Island Prison and gradually spread to all prisons in Turkey, must be abolished. Respect for the basic human rights of all prisoners, especially sick prisoners, must be reestablished as a standard.
  • The system created on İmralı Island is being deployed as a technique of government. It no longer constitutes an exception but has evolved into an ordinary legal-political regime that has spread throughout the country. The survival of the government has taken precedence over the future of millions.
  • Abdullah Öcalan has been subjected to all kinds of immoral and inhuman torture for 24 years. The main purpose of these practices is to liquidate the legitimate democratic struggle and the constitutive politics of the social opposition. Therefore, the primary and essential objective of all oppositional forces and law and human rights defenders must be the complete abolition of the İmralı system.
  • Due to its significance and ramifications, the Kurdish issue has grown into a problem of regional and global scale. Efforts geared towards its solution should therefore also be discussed by taking into account its impact and consequences for the Middle East and the world at large. For this, it is essential for all progressive forces around the world to take the initiative and mobilize.
  • We once again call on the CPT to exercise its responsibility in respect of the prolonged incommunicado detention in İmralı Prison, which has become the source of great concern and anguish. Well justified as it is, we expect all law and human rights defenders, especially our friends in Europe, to keep up the pressure on the CPT in this regard. We would also like to emphasize that the CPT should immediately share its latest observations concerning İmralı Prison with the public.
  • The forum offered an occasion to refresh our memories and call ourselves to account. Thus, we concluded that one of the main duties of the forum components is to assume the leading role in expanding and strengthening our solidarity network in order to sustain our struggle.
  • As a constantly changing area of legal and political obscurity İmralı Prison does not only deprive the public of its right to information. In the face of manipulation and information pollution politics too is thrown into a state of vertigo. The current state of affairs in which we are unable to receive even a sign of life from the inmates in İmralı Prison must end immediately.
  • The solution to all these problems lies in the democratic and societal solution to the Kurdish issue. Öcalan’s freedom is inevitable for a peaceful and political solution of the Kurdish issue and the democratization of Turkey.

Öcalan’s isolation – a law unto itself

Yesterday one of Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyers was in Strasbourg and I took the opportunity to ask him what was new since we last spoke. The answer was – very little. The lawyers have talked with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), whose delegation visited İmralı prison in September, but the CPT will neither confirm nor deny the rumour that they never met with Öcalan. They won’t even give any information about his health and wellbeing.

But Ibrahim Bilmez was able to explain to me the legal games that are being used to deny Öcalan any contact with the outside world – or rather describe to me, because they lack any rational explanation.

Contrary to all human rights law, Öcalan is denied all visits and contact. He is denied visits from his family and visits from his lawyers, but the illegal legal rules employed are different in each case.

The excuse given for denying family visits is that he has been given disciplinary penalties. Each one lasts three months, and as soon as it is over, he is given another. These are given by the prison, and Öcalan’s lawyers are never informed.

Visits from Öcalan’s lawyers are banned by the court in Bursa, the court for the region where the prison is based. The ban is renewed every six months, and no reason is given. Öcalan’s lawyers have only once seen a case made by the court to justify their decision, and that was four or five years ago. Then, the Bursa court claimed that their ban was based on a cell confinement penalty given to Öcalan by prison staff many years earlier. And the reasons given for that penalty were that Öcalan had described education in the Kurdish mother tongue as a human right, and that he had produced a road map for peace, though this had been written with the knowledge – indeed the encouragement – of the state.

The Bursa court is does not even follow Turkey’s own laws. According to a Turkish law brought in a few years back, lawyers can only be banned from seeing their imprisoned clients if the prison staff report that criminal activity has occurred during their meetings, and this has been confirmed by a court. None of this has happened; and in any case, it would not stop a prisoner from seeing a different lawyer.

All these practices of isolation have been brought to the European Court of Human Rights in a case that began in 2011. The court is still to make a ruling. The lawyers are hopeful that a decision will be made soon, but they also know that although the Court’s rulings are binding, Turkey ignores them.

As Bilmez described the situation, he recalled Öcalan’s own observation that the international conspiracy that captured him nearly 24 years ago has put him into a living coffin.

International lawyers to join protest outside the Council of Europe

Council of Europe building

From 23-25 January, Kurds and their friends will again be holding a protest outside the Council of Europe. We will be back, despite single digit temperatures, because, when it comes to Abdullah Öcalan, the Council and its Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) are failing in their fundamental purpose – the defence of Human rights. Protestors will gather opposite the Council Building between 10.00 and 14.00 each of the three days, and on Wednesday they will be joined by four lawyers from different parts of Europe who will make a press statement at noon.

Since the last session of the Council of Europe – they meet every three months – we have learnt that the long-demanded delegation from the CPT that visited İmralı prison in September may not have actually met Öcalan. If this is the case, Öcalan will have had no contact with the outside world since March 2021. The CPT refuses to give any information about their visit, so fears for Öcalan’s safety and health are even greater now than they were before September.

The protestors are calling on the CPT and the Council of Europe, not to allow themselves to become complicit in Turkish government oppression. They argue that, if the CPT is serious about preventing torture, they must break their silence on Abdullah Öcalan.

Their statement about the protests explains:

‘On a human level, isolation is a form of torture and is forbidden by both Turkish and international law. The mistreatment of Öcalan has also become a model for the mistreatment of other political prisoners and infects the entire Turkish judicial system, with devastating consequences for society as a whole.

‘Öcalan is recognised as their leader by millions of Kurds. Kurds want to be able to live in peace and dignity. Öcalan is key to any future negotiations for justice, peace, and democracy in Turkey, like Mandela was in South Africa.

‘Öcalan’s writings have opened new possibilities for sustainable living, women’s liberation, and inclusive democracy. An important political philosopher is being excluded from contributing to the central debates of our times.

‘The Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, was established to ensure democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Turkey’s treatment of Öcalan – and indeed of human rights more generally – is putting the Council to the test: a test that, so far, it is sadly failing.

‘In light of the illegal isolation, the CPT must tell Öcalan’s lawyers whether or not they met with him in September 2022, and what they know of his health and wellbeing.

‘The Council’s Committee of Ministers must put pressure on Turkey to act on the instructions of the CPT and comply with international human rights law, including

allowing Öcalan’s lawyers to meet with him immediately and regularly.

‘Council members, and the wider public, can help build this pressure by informing the world of what is happening and highlighting demands for ending Öcalan’s isolation and for new negotiations for a just, peaceful, and democratic settlement – in the name of humanity, peace, and a better future.’

The HDP’s vigil for justice and peace

Since 21 December, MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been holding a daily vigil in Ankara to call for the end of Öcalan’s isolation and the reopening of peace negotiations. They have also made their own application to visit Öcalan in prison. (Questions in parliament are simply met with a denial that isolation exists.)

The MPs point out that the isolation of the İmralı prisoners not only constitutes torture and denial of human rights, but also blocks the way to a democratic and peaceful future for the whole of Turkey. They explain, ‘The most important actor for solving the Kurdish problem is Mr Öcalan. Interviews with Mr Öcalan during the [2013-2015] Resolution Process demonstrated that the way to ensure peace – to establish a common life in the Middle East and a democratic and equal life for the peoples of Turkey – passes through an honourable and democratic solution to the Kurdish question. The only way to do this is to restart negotiations…’

The MPs observe that the mentality that produced the isolation in İmralı has been imposed on the whole of society, and especially as hostility towards the Kurds, which is felt in every moment of life. The vigil was planned to be outside the Ministry of Justice, but the Turkish authorities have proved the MPs’ point about government authoritarianism by putting obstacles in their path. On the first day, they were prevented from marching from Parliament; on the second, the press was kept away from attending their statement; and since 26 December, they have been prevented from reaching the ministry and have given their statements outside the gate of the Parliamentary Assembly.

The MPs are making an appeal to democratic forces, but they can expect little support from Turkey’s main opposition coalition, whose ethnic nationalist elements forestall any engagement with the HDP, let alone with Öcalan’s case – even though the rule of law and human rights are meant to be universal.

Internationally, though, Öcalan’s isolation is getting a growing response from the legal profession. Organisations of lawyers from a range of European countries have made a written call for Turkey to comply with the demands of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT); and also for the CPT and the Council of Europe to make full use of existing mechanisms to put pressure on Turkey to do so. They write ‘We call on the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to discuss the Turkish government’s persistent refusal to follow the CPT’s recommendations and to take the necessary steps. In the face of the Turkish government’s repeated refusal to comply with the CPT’s recommendations, we urge the CPT to take advantage of Article 10 of the Convention and issue a statement outlining the main abuses and their impact on the health of prisoners in Imrali.’

Three days of protest outside the CPT

Kurds and their friends have been protesting outside the Agora Building in Strasbourg, which houses the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). They   hope to persuade the CPT to say whether or not they met with Abdullah Öcalan when they visited Turkey in September, and to get them to tell his lawyers what they know about his condition; and they are also calling on the CPT and the Council of Europe to put pressure on Turkey to comply with international law and allow Öcalan and the other three men isolated in İmralı prison to be visited by their lawyers. This week’s protest was prompted by the claims made to Öcalan’s lawyers that Öcalan had not met with the CPT delegation, which would mean that he has had no contact with the outside word since a very brief phone call in March 2021. In any case, the CPT are refusing to give any information as to his condition.

So, protestors will be out in force this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, with groups coming from different places. On Wednesday, people came from Kurdish communities in SwitzerlandTheir message was spelt out clearly in three large banners.

The gathered protestors – and a much wider TV audience – were addressed by Ramzi Kartal, co-president of Kongra-Gel (the Kurdish People’s Congress), by the exiled Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politicians, Ali Şimşek and Lezgin Botan, and by Ömer Güneş, one of Öcalan’s lawyers.

Ramzi Kartal with, from left to right, Ali Şimşek, Lezgin Botan and Leyla İmret (exiled mayor of Cizre)
Ömer Güneş

They also heard from Ögmundur Jónasson, the former Interior Minister of Iceland who is a representative to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He told the crowd, which also included other exiled Kurdish politicians, “What you are doing here is extremely important, and I sometimes have cited a human rights activist I met in Ahmed – Diyarbakir – some years ago. He said ‘don’t worry about us. we will never give up, but worry about yourselves, worry about the humiliation of the world, the humiliation of silence in Europe.’ So, I thank you for waking us up.”

Ögmundur Jónasson also gave an interview to Kurdish TV

The last major demonstration in front of the Council of Europe, in October, called on the Council to take action in support of Öcalan’s right to hope: that is the right to the possibility of release. Life sentences without parole, by denying hope, are considered a form of torture; however, since this sentence was given to Öcalan, it has become standard practice in Turkish ‘terrorism’ cases. Öcalan sued the Turkish government over his loss of the right to hope, and in 2014, after many years, the court found in his favour. It then took the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers another seven years to act on this decision. In December 2021 they asked the Turkish government to inform them by September 2022 what they were doing to comply with the legal standards. Turkey’s response, which didn’t arrive till October, made it clear that they had no intention of changing their treatment of prisoners. This blatant disregard for the court decision ought to be followed up by the Committee of Minister. They are meeting this week, but the Öcalan case is not on their agenda.

The protection of human rights is the raison d’être of the Council of Europe, but when it comes to the Kurds, the council as a whole does not want to wake up.

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.

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.