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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
This week the Council of Europe is full of representatives from municipalities and regional authorities, here for the twice-yearly Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Among them are representatives from Turkey, who blithely criticise other local democracies without mentioning that in southeast Turkey/North Kurdistan local democracy has been all but abolished.
According to Turkey’s 2019 local elections, there should be 65 local authorities with mayors and councils from the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but only six of these have been left in HDP hands. Six mayors were disqualified immediately after their elections on the grounds that they had been removed previously – even though their candidatures had been officially approved – and their positions were awarded to the runner-up candidates from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in defiance of the expressed preference of the electorate. The other 53 missing mayors have all been dismissed under terrorism legislation. Some are in prison, others in exile.
On the rare occasions when a mayor from another party has been removed, they have been replaced by another elected councillor. When HDP mayors are removed they are replaced by the local governor who is a government appointee, and the council is also closed down. The governor has complete control, like the representative of a colonial power. The first thing these governors do is close down the organisations established by the HDP mayor and council – especially the organisations established for women.
Even the six remaining HDP mayors are limited in what they can achieve as they rely on the state for their funding and the state does not want to support their plans. Their every action is followed by the state security services, who compile dossiers against them.
At the last session of the Congress, six months ago, Turkey’s attack on local democracy was discussed and discussed critically, but this did not lead to any action. The Council of Europe is meant to safeguard European democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, so Turkey’s behaviour puts them to the test. When Leyla Güven was arrested in 2009, when she was mayor of Viranşehir and also a Congress member, her detention was brought up every Congress so it could not be forgotten and Turkey’s attack on democracy could not be normalised. Turkey’s continued attacks on democracy need to continue to be marked and highlighted – and words need to be followed by actions. If the Council of Europe is serious about the standards it claims to uphold, Turkey cannot be allowed to continue to take part in all council activities as if nothing was amiss.
Turkey’s attacks on the mayors are just one of the ways that the HDP is illegally restricted and the democratic expression of Kurdish hopes denied. When democratic pathways are closed down, then people turn to other routes.
Last week’s action outside the Council of Europe was timed not only for the anniversary of the beginning of the international conspiracy that ended in Ocalan’s abduction, but also coincided with the autumn session of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly
Last Wednesday, the Assembly gave their support to the council’s monitoring committee report on Turkey. Despite its diplomatic language, their report was severely critical- but, as in every report, that criticism was blunted by the introductory comment that Turkey faces serious terrorist threats. As we all know, every Kurd who insists on being Kurdish is a terrorist in the Turkish government’s eyes, and the “War on Terror” is used as an excuse to avoid engaging with the Kurdish Question. The politicians in the chamber cannot have missed the colourful and noisy demonstration outside, but most lacked the initiative – the curiosity even – to cross the road and meet some of the people that Turkey regards as terrorists and discover for themselves the dangerous absurdity of that “terrorism” comment.
However, if many politicians still seem happy to remain in ignorance, we do have some good friends who work hard to set the record straight and to act as a voice for the Kurdish struggle in European politics, and some of them were able to find time in their busy parliamentary programme to come out and give public voice to their support for the Kurdish cause.
We heard – in order of appearance on this video – Paul Gavan from Ireland, Constantinos Efstathiou from Cyprus, Thomas Pringle from Ireland, Laura Castel Fort from Catalonia, and Roberto Rampi from Italy. Tommy Shepherd from Scotland also visited the demonstration the previous day.
Like in any political struggle, the formal politics and the wider movement boost each other, and events such as this are an important part of working together.
Ibrahim Bilmez, one of Öcalan’s lawyers, has also been in Strasbourg this week. Below is an interview with him, edited for ease of reading.
This is not the first time we are here. We have been coming for years. As Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyers we have been trying to do what we can in the justice system here. The European Court of Human Rights is the highest justice institution in Europe, and, as Öcalan’s lawyers we have open cases in the court and other cases from the past. Some past decisions were positive and others negative. We are working on getting the positive decisions put into practice, because Turkey doesn’t even implement the decisions taken by the court. Just as the Kurdish people have been coming for years to hold a vigil in front of the Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights, so we have also been coming for years to try and see that their decisions are implemented.
[With respect to the 2014 Court ruling that found that Ocalan’s imprisonment without the possibility of parole denied him the fundamental ‘right of hope’, which was finally looked at by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers last year], Turkey was given until the end of September to respond. However, there was nothing discussed at the September meeting of the Committee of Ministers. We are waiting to see if it is on the agenda for the next meeting, and NGOs in Turkey are working on a submission to the committee to try and push this forward.
On one side, Turkey is trying to delay everything – not implementing what is demanded and playing for time. And on the other side, the Council of Europe is assisting Turkey to do this. They do not uphold the fundamental principles and values for which they were established, but are effectively helping Turkey to evade them. Vigils outside the Council and in other places can put more pressure on the Council and on Europe’s justice system. Rights cannot be gained without a struggle. This is an unfortunate reality.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) [which visited İmrali prison in September], has been visiting İmralı for nearly 24 years. Through these years we have always informed them of the situation, and they have seen it for themselves, and their reports list some of the injustices. Through the years, we meet with them, and they say: ‘Yes, we have visited. We can’t say anything about the visit. We will prepare a report and give it to the interested state, and if and when they agree, we will make it public. Before then, no information will be available.’ We hope that this time it doesn’t take a year, or even six months. It is nineteen months since we had we had any information from our client.
In the CPT’s reports there are criticisms and things that need to be changed – such as allowing visits from family and lawyers. But who is going to demand that these happen? Nothing has happened for all that time.
The aim of the international conspiracy [that led to Öcalan’s abduction] was to destroy him. It was not just against Öcalan, but against the Kurdish people and the Kurdish freedom struggle. However, they didn’t get their expected result. Öcalan is isolated in İmralı, but his thoughts and ideas have grown – not only in Kurdistan, in the whole world. We have seen what happened in Rojava, the resistance against Daesh, and now in Iran, where especially women and Kurds are on the streets shouting his slogan: Jin Jiyan Azadi. Understanding of Öcalan, both in the region and internationally has grown with time.
[Looking at the Council of Europe], on one side you have the Turkish dictatorship, which has developed over the years, and on the other, the so-called democratic European countries. In the middle of these nation states there is Öcalan, with his resistance and struggle, in a small island prison, together with the Kurdish people and internationalists who, are developing the resistance and carrying forward the struggle for freedom, democracy and justice. We don’t expect much from states. We come here to increase understanding and to try and get the court decisions put into practice. But the real struggle for freedom, democracy and peace comes from the people.
[On the importance of removing the PKK from terrorism lists] – this is very important because it opens the way to a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. Delisting is important to put an end to the denial and annihilation policies that have been applied to the Kurdish people by Turkey and also by the international powers. It will open the possibility of a real solution that meets the rights of the Kurdish people. If you insist that the PKK is a terrorist organisation, Turkey cannot be made to solve the issue with terrorists. The states who put the PKK on a terror list, don’t want to solve the Kurdish issue that they created 100 years ago. We ask, what is their approach to solve the Kurdish issue? What rights do Kurds have?
Kurdish people have been carrying out the struggle for forty years, together with their friends all over the world, and each of those friends has added their own imput. We believe in international solidarity, and that growing solidarity will be more important in solving not only the Kurdish issue, but universal problems to which it is linked. That is why we are calling on everybody to understand that freedom for Öcalan is freedom for the Kurdish people, and freedom for the Kurds is your freedom, too. With this knowledge we can strengthen international solidarity.
If you are a Kurdish politician in Turkey, there is a good chance that you will either be sent to prison or be forced into exile, or both. This truth was evident at the demonstration outside the Council of Europe on Monday, where over a dozen exiled MPs and mayors from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lined up behind a banner calling on the Council of Europe to sanction Turkey for repeatedly ignoring the demands of the Council’s institutions to comply with its rules on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. (Sanctions in this case means restricting Turkey’s role in the Council, such as by denying them voting rights.)
Monday’s demonstration is part of a four-day sit-in outside the Council to highlight the continued mistreatment of Abdullah Öcalan, especially the denial of his ‘right to hope’ by a life sentence without parole. The sit-in is timed to coincide with the anniversary of Öcalan’s expulsion from Syria on 9 October 1998 – the first stage of the international conspiracy that ended in his abduction back to Turkey in February 1999. Although the European Court of Human Rights ruled, back in 2014, that denying Öcalan the right to hope constituted torture, no action has been taken. The latest deadline was September, but the case is not on the Committee of Ministers’ agenda.
Meanwhile, life without parole has been extended to thousands of other political prisoners in Turkey – along with increasing use of isolation. The prison regime is getting ever more cruel, and the Turkish state is clamping down ever harder on all opposition – especially on the HDP. Ongoing court cases could see the closure of the party and the imprisonment – without parole – of many leading members. The government has applied for more HDP MPs to have their parliamentary immunity lifted so that they too can be tried and jailed. A police attack on a demonstration to mark the 9 October left HDP MP, Habip Eksik, with a double fracture to his leg and a bleeding face. And a massive and violent police operation prevented all but a few people from attending the 10 October anniversary commemoration in Ankara for the more than 100 people who died when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a peace rally called by the HDP and other left organisations in 2015.
Most of the politicians at Monday’s demonstration outside the Council of Europe had spent time in prison before their exile – some for 15 or 20 years. The demonstration was addressed by the HDP’s Honorary President, Ertuğrul Kürkçü (above), and by former MPs Hatip Dicle
and Selma Irmak,
and former mayor Selim Sadak.
Afterwards, the politicians met with the HDPs members of the Parliamentary Assembly, Hişyar Özsoy and Feleknas Uca, and other members of the Council of Europe’s Left Group.