Since February 1999, Abdullah Öcalan has been imprisoned on İmralı island under a regime of vindictive cruelty that is an attack not only on him as an individual but also on the Kurdish people and on democracy. As explained by Ertuğrul Kürkçü, Honorary President of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Honorary Associate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’, ‘in its peculiar modus operandi, characterised essentially by the permanent suspension of the system of rights borne out of international and domestic law, the “İmralı regime” comprises the crystallised embodiment of Ankara’s perspective on handling the Kurdish issue’.
All this has been made possible by the compliance and active support of other states, beginning with Öcalan’s forced departure from Syria and abduction to Turkey.
When Öcalan took refuge in Syria, Syria was part of the Soviet sphere of influence – part of the opposing block in the Cold War to NATO member Turkey. Despite systematic oppression of Syria’s own Kurdish population, the Syrian government was ready to help an enemy of their enemy. But by 1998, the Cold War was long over, and Russia was enveloped in its own problems. When Turkey, backed by the United States, the European Union, and Israel, threatened to invade if Syria did not expel Öcalan and the PKK, the Syrian government had neither the will nor the ability to resist. When they asked Öcalan to leave, he decided to go and put forward his proposals for peace negotiations to those who would listen in Europe; but at every turn, his plans were thwarted and he was forced to move on.
He first tried to go to Greece at the invitation of some Greek parliamentarians, but was refused asylum and sent, in a plane chartered by the Greek Secret Service, to Moscow. Although he had been invited by the Russian parliament, which accepted his application for asylum, the Russian Prime Minister made a deal with Turkey, and after a month Öcalan moved on again, this time to Rome. Despite huge demonstrations in his support, other European countries put pressure on Italy. Italy refused to extradite him to Turkey, but wouldn’t give him refugee status in time, and after a little over two months, he went back to Moscow for one or two days and then back to Athens.
The Greek government said they would take him to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had promised him asylum, but, instead, on 2 February 1999, they flew him to Kenya and took him to the Greek Embassy in Nairobi. On 15 February, embassy officials told him that he would be taken to the Netherlands, which had agreed to accept him, but his car was driven away from the convoy, and he was delivered to a waiting Turkish plane, where he was arrested by the Turkish Secret Service and flown back to Turkey. There, he was imprisoned on İmralı Island in the Sea of Marmara, guarded by over 1000 soldiers.
Öcalan was tried in a court set up on the island. His pre-trial meetings with his lawyers were very restricted and no one was allowed to exchange documents or make notes. Four and a half months after his capture he was sentenced to death.
He immediately appealed the sentence. In his defence he called for a negotiated peace with a rewriting of the Turkish constitution. When this appeal was rejected, he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which called for his execution to be suspended while they examined the case. Meanwhile, in December 1999, Turkey had been accepted as a candidate country for joining the European Union, and the Turkish government came under pressure to comply with the Copenhagen Criteria – the EU’s eligibility rules – which include stipulations on democracy and human rights. In August 2002, Turkey abolished the death penalty to comply with EU expectations, and in May 2005, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights gave a final ruling that Öcalan’s conviction was unsound and the case should be retried. But a retrial never happened.
Öcalan’s death sentence was commuted to an ‘aggravated life sentence’ that excluded the possibility of parole – a punishment that is itself regarded as a form of torture in international human rights law, which argues that prisoners must not be denied the right of hope.
For the first ten years of his imprisonment, Öcalan was the only prisoner on the island. Then a new prison was built to accommodate him and five (currently three) other prisoners, with each kept in solitary isolation almost all of the time, in their own cells within their own high-walled prison yards. Time together is limited and controlled.
Contact with the outside world is severely restricted – again counter to the clear stipulations of international human rights law, and, indeed Turkey’s own constitution. Öcalan has a radio tuned to a government station, and was not allowed a television until 2012. Newspapers are non-oppositional, censored, and late. Communication by letter was always restricted and has been stopped since 2016. Visits from family and lawyers have frequently been cancelled due to bad weather or problems with the boat. Lawyers’ visits took place under surveillance, and, since July 2011, the only lawyers’ visits allowed at all have been five in 2019, conceded in response to a mass hunger strike. Öcalan was able to meet with Kurdish MPs during the peace process of 2012-15, but, even then, was not allowed visits from his lawyers. He has been allowed only five visits from his family since 2014. Until the surprise visit by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in September 2022, there had been no contact with Öcalan at all since March 2021, when rumours of his death forced the authorities to allow his brother to speak to him on the phone. This was only Öcalan’s second phone call in 23 years, and it was cut short after less than four minutes. The current excuse given for denying access is that he is under ‘disciplinary punishment’. These punishments, which his lawyers are not allowed to challenge, are given for actions such as talking during a sports hour, and as soon as one is finished, another punishment starts.
The CPT has made use of its power to visit İmralı nine times, but its critical reports have largely not been acted on. In fact, conditions have got worse. There is no public information on what they found on their latest visit.
İmralı’s aggravated life sentences and solitary isolation have become templates for new forms of abuse of political prisoners throughout Turkey. There are now thousands of prisoners on aggravated life sentences, and the Turkish prisons increasingly aim to eliminate possibilities for prisoners giving each other mutual support through minimising communal activity and frequent implementation of total solitary confinement. This isolation is itself a form of mental torture and provides opportunities for further forms of torture out of others’ sight.
Those who had convinced themselves that Öcalan’s capture would be the end of the Kurdish question must have been astonished by the outpouring of anger and determination it caused. Everywhere Kurds lived, people were out on the streets for weeks in protest – especially outside the embassies of Greece and Israel, which were both understood to have played a prominent role in the conspiracy. Many protested through hunger strikes and, against the express wishes of both Öcalan and the PKK, some carried out acts of self-immolation.
Protests have never stopped. Campaigns for Öcalan’s freedom have been taken up by progressive movements and individuals across the world, both against the fact of Öcalan’s incarceration, and against the human-rights-breaching forms that it has taken.
Öcalan has used his years in prison to study and to write. It was not easy. Exact rules have varied , but for some of that time he describes being allowed only one book and being unable to take notes, sometimes not even being allowed a pen. Despite all the obstacles, his prison writings have formed the basis for a realignment of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and for a new form of progressive communitarian politics that has inspired hope across the world. His arguments and ideas were presented as his legal defence to the European Court of Human Rights. The end of contact with the outside world has denied him the possibility to continue to contribute to political debate, and has denied other political thinkers the possibility to engage with him in discussion.
Öcalan’s lawyers observed in their 2021 Assessment Report, ‘The 23-year history of İmralı has clearly shown that whenever security policies were prioritized as the dominant approach to the Kurdish issue, this has been paralleled by an aggravation of the isolation imposed on those held in İmralı Island Prison. This has been most profound over the course of the last 6-7 years.’