Police attack and detain prisoners relatives trying to draw attention rights violations in prison, 13 August 2022 outside an HDP district office in Istanbul

The Turkish Republic has a long and brutal history of abusing the judicial system to punish political opponents – which very often means Kurds. Thousands of people who have campaigned for Kurdish rights and freedoms are in Turkish prisons. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) took up arms because they were convinced that peaceful resistance was not possible, and Turkish governments of different political parties have seemed determined to prove them right. Whether Kurds pursue their politics through parliamentary channels or through the PKK, they are treated, without distinction, as ‘terrorists’. The PKK’s designation as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States is used to portray anti-Kurdish oppression as part of the ‘war against terror’.

Kurdish politicians and activists outwith the PKK continue to stress their adherence to peaceful methods. At the same time, resistance to this criminalisation of dissent includes the vital campaign to remove the PKK from international terrorism lists. In 2020, a protracted case against PKK members finally made its way to the top of the Belgian court system, which ruled that the PKK is not a terrorist organisation subject to criminal law, but a non-state actor in a conflict, and subject to the rules of war. This judgment is based on the recognition in international law of a right of resistance – a recognition that developed in response to anti-colonial movements. The right of resistance is an idea with a very long history, but political powers apply it very selectively and according to their own political interests.

At the time when the European Union listed it as a terrorist organisation, the PKK was observing a long ceasefire while attempting to engage in dialogues for a peaceful solution that would allow Kurds in Turkey to live in dignity. But, as we see again and again, Europe’s strategic relationship with Turkey eliminates all other considerations. Through their politically driven listings, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom lend their support to the oppression of Kurds in Turkey, and often in their own countries too. They also put a major stumbling block in the way of a peaceful settlement. The European Union’s listing is being challenged in the EU’s Court of Justice on the grounds that the original decision, which is regularly repeated without further investigation, was made without proper evidence. There is also an international campaign against the European listing, with supporters including lawyers, politicians, academics, and trade unionists.

In Turkish electoral politics, the hopes of millions of Kurds and of other oppressed groups are invested in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The Turkish state refuses to distinguish between the HDP and the PKK and has used its increasingly elastic anti-terrorism laws – bolstered by the terrorist listings – to put thousands of HDP members behind bars, including members of parliament, mayors, and the party’s co-chairs. Almost all the HDP’s elected mayors have been removed and replaced by government appointees, and ongoing court cases threaten to condemn leading party members to life imprisonment without possibility of parole and to shut down the party. This would not be the first pro-Kurdish party shut down by the Turkish government, and its closure would not shut down the movement behind it.

Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the HDP in his prison cell. He has been detained since 2016 despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling for his immediate release

Punishment by life imprisonment without parole for ‘terrorism’ offences is just one of the ways in which İmralı has become a terrifying model for the Turkish penal system more generally. Dormitory type prisons had already begun to be replaced by small cells and a regime of isolation in the 1990s – to mass protests, including hunger strikes in which many died. İmralı has been a testing ground for further ways of making the lives of prisoners, and especially life prisoners, as unpleasant as possible. A 2005 law stipulates sadistic treatment for those on aggravated life sentences, who are guaranteed only very short amounts of time for exercise and communal mixing. Isolation is not just torture in itself, but exposes prisoners to the risk of hidden ill-treatment by prison staff. Even the few vestiges of communal life allowed are often curtailed by harsh and arbitrary disciplinary punishments.

Turkey’s prisons are the site of all kinds of oppression, but they have also been the site of some of the most determined resistance, including the mass hunger strike that forced the Turkish government to briefly open the door on Öcalan’s isolation in 2019.