It was Abdullah Öcalan’s birthday this week. His 75th, to be precise. Within the Kurdish movement, this is celebrated by planting trees. Sometimes, huge cakes are baked with his portrait on it, but in Turkey that can get you in jail. Anyway, it’s a good occasion to draw attention to the fact that next year, Öcalan will be jailed for 25 years. According to jurisprudence by the European Court of Human Rights, Turkey has to review if he has to remain in jail. It’s called ‘the right to hope’.
Initially, in 1999, a few months after he was captured and brought to Turkey, Öcalan received the death penalty. This was commuted to an aggravated life sentence in 2002, after the death penalty had been abolished. The death penalty is considered a violation of the ‘right to life’, so could not have a place in a country that aspired to become a member of the European Union. But now, life imprisonment without parole is increasingly seen as a human rights violation as well. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that it is a ‘cruel and inhumane’ punishment to lock somebody up for life without the prospect of release. It undermines the right to human dignity by removing any hope of release.
As a result, countries that lock people up until they can leave prison in a coffin have had to set up a procedure to review the sentence after 25 years. Is it still serving a legal purpose to keep the prisoner jailed? If not, the prisoner must be given the right to start a programme to reintegrate in society.
I became interested in the human rights violation that life imprisonment can cause due to a case in the Netherlands that revolves around a Kurdish man from Turkey, Hüseyin Baybasin. He was convicted to life and has been in prison now for 25 years. The decision of the Dutch minister to allow him to re-integrate into society is pending but will be positive, I know from reliable sources.
In a way, the case of Baybasin resembles the case of Öcalan. Both men are in jail for political reasons, which makes the tools of the European Court of Human Rights unsuitable for solving the violation of their rights.
Baybasin was arrested upon entry in the Netherlands and was going to be extradited to Turkey, reportedly as part of a secret deal between Turkey and the Netherlands – too complicated to explain the details here. A Dutch judge hindered the extradition because Baybasin had been tortured in Turkey after he had revealed the involvement of the Turkish state in drugs trafficking, which he knew about because he used to work for the state himself. To live up to the deal with Turkey, Baybasin was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in murder, drugs crimes and being part of a criminal organisation. Thick books have been written about everything that went wrong in the trial and Baybasin has always denied all the charges against him. Those who have thoroughly investigated his case are convinced he is a political prisoner in the Netherlands.
It’s inconvenient for the Netherlands that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that every life sentence has to be reviewed after 25 years. Now what are they going to do with Baybasin? He doesn’t have a residence permit in the Netherlands, but putting him on a plane to Turkey, which Turkey would love and the Netherlands doesn’t object to, is out of the question.
It’s out of the question because Baybasin’s case is connected to the Kurdish issue. Again, I won’t get into the details here (the case is immensely complicated), but what it boils down to is that a judicial procedure is colliding with a political injustice. If the Kurdish issue had been resolved in the decades that Baybasin was in jail, the situation wouldn’t be so complicated now. The Netherlands has integrated the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights into its domestic regulations and would lose face if it kept Baybasin in jail without justification, but that doesn’t mean that if he is a free man again, his case is solved. Only the truth about the severe injustices done to him can fully free him.
Of course, the same counts for Abdullah Öcalan. He too has the “right to hope”. In 2024, it will be 25 years after he was sentenced to death and his imprisonment must be reviewed. Turkey won’t do that, because it has refused to implement the ECHR jurisprudence into its domestic laws when it comes to prisoners who serve an aggravated life sentence for ‘terrorism’. The ECHR has no tools to force Turkey to review Öcalan’s case. Turkey’s severe violation of basically all Öcalan’s rights can’t be solved within the Council of Europe’s judicial framework, because he is, like Baybasin, a political prisoner.
Baybasin has justified hope that he will be released from Dutch prison. But his bigger hope, namely a fair retrial of his case, is connected to Öcalan’s freedom. The now 75-year-old doesn’t hope for his own freedom in an individual sense, I dare to say. He hopes for his release because he knows that his freedom is directly tied to the freedom of the Kurds. Political change is needed. No Kurd is free until Öcalan is free.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.