Next week it will be 22 years since the capture of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, and his incarceration in Imralı island prison under a system of solitary confinement, unparalleled anywhere in the world. Until a few years ago, he was there alone and in a single cell. Then three more prisoners were brought to Imralı, and his loneliness was supposedly ended. However, these prisoners, too, were placed in single cells, and the restrictions imposed on Mr Öcalan have also been applied to them.
President Erdoğan allows visits from lawyers and family members only when he himself chooses. When he thinks that this is not in his interests, he concocts reasons to disconnect the island from the world. Lawyers and family visits are blocked, and the prisoners are not allowed to send or receive letters. They are stopped from making phone calls, and the books, newspapers and journals they have requested are not given to them. Öcalan has had only one phone call with his family in all these 22 years.
As has been well documented, an international conspiracy ensured that Mr Öcalan was forcibly taken from the Greek Embassy in the Kenyan Capital of Nairobi, on 15 February 1999, and handed over to Turkish officials waiting in a plane at the airport. In response to his capture, Kurds all over the world stood up and organised protests. Nearly a hundred people ended their lives through self-immolation. And, since that day, Kurds have been continuing their struggle for the freedom of their leader with different forms of demonstration and protest.
Turkey, and – at their instigation – the US and the EU, may categorise the PKK as a terrorist organisation and its leader, Mr Öcalan, as a terrorist, but the vast majority of the fifty million Kurds who make up the largest stateless people in the world see the PKK as their freedom movement and Öcalan as their national leader. The US and the EU have always given their support to Turkey and continue to do so. They do this for their own geopolitical interests – and also because they perceive Öcalan’s ideas as dangerous to their political views. Thanks to this international backing, Turkey has been able to continue to fight against the PKK for forty years.
Mr Öcalan has been seeking a solution through peaceful democratic means since the beginning of the 1990s. In 1993, Turgut Özal, then president of Turkey, established relations with Öcalan through intermediaries, and asked him to declare a unilateral ceasefire and open channels for a peaceful solution. Mr Öcalan responded to this overture by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. However, the Turkish deep state assassinated Özal with poison and ensured, instead, a brutal war against the PKK, and collective punishment against the Kurdish people. Following this, the PKK declared unilateral ceasefires many times to allow a peaceful solution, but the response of the state was only a more violent policy of war and annihilation.
When Mr. Öcalan was brought to Imralı prison, he again declared a unilateral ceasefire. In order to create an opportunity for a peaceful settlement, he ordered the PKK’s armed forces to leave Turkey and cross the border into South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. The Turkish state took this as an opportunity to ambush and kill around 500 PKK guerrillas during their retreat. Despite this, Öcalan did not back down from his decision, and continued to try and work towards a peaceful solution.
In 2002, while the PKK was striving for peace, the European Union added the organisation to their own terrorist blacklist. Turkey took this as an opportunity to respond to the PKK’s peace efforts with further war. During this period, lawyers were generally allowed to go to Imralı Island, on the grounds that Mr Öcalan was insisting on a peaceful resolution, but the Turkish state continued to pursue unilateral destruction.
None of these peace efforts gave results. In 2004, with no peace in sight, the PKK decided to return to Turkey and fight again. Turkey, now under Erdoğan’s premiership, responded to this by aggravating Öcalan’s isolation, and attempting to kill him through slow poisoning. At the same time, the Turkish army intensified their extermination operations against the PKK guerrillas.
When these military operations failed to lead to the results that the government had hoped for, and the attempted poisoning had been discovered and exposed, Erdoğan began to send more conciliatory messages to Mr Öcalan and the PKK. Mr Öcalan, again insisted on taking a peaceful approach, and again called on the PKK not to take part in action other than legitimate self defense.
In 2009, state authorities tried to give the impression of working towards a solution by meeting with Öcalan inside Imralı and with PKK officials in Europe. But these meetings were not sincere. The talks failed, and a new isolation was imposed on Mr Öcalan in İmrali island.
In 2012, Erdoğan seized control of state institutions together with the Fethullah Gülen movement, and then embarked on his conflict with the Gülenists. As he did not want to fight on two fronts, he decided to calm down the conflict with the PKK.
At the same time, widespread hunger strikes took place in Turkey and around the world – especially in Turkish prisons – demanding an end to the isolation imposed upon Öcalan in İmrali. When the social tension resulting from these hunger strikes reached boiling point, Mr Öcalan was allowed to have a meeting with his brother. During this meeting, Öcalan called for the hunger strikes to end. Hundreds of detainees who were on the verge of death, and those taking part abroad, ended their hunger strikes after this call. This was seen as a testament to the strength of Öcalan’s influence on both the PKK and wider Kurdish society. As a result, state officials started talks directly with Öcalan.
Öcalan’s isolation continued until 3 January 2013, when Kurdish politicians, Ahmet Türk and Ayla Akat Ata, were permitted to go to Imralı and have a meeting with him. After this meeting, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) formed a special delegation that held regular meetings with Öcalan. At the specific request of the state itself, this delegation also went to the mountains to meet the top leaders of the PKK and begin mediation towards a peaceful solution. (Most of those HDP mediators are currently in prison as punishment for taking part in these meetings.)
Regular negotiations continued for nearly two years, sparking a genuine hope of peace in Kurdish society. In the Diyarbakir Newroz (Newroz is a traditional festival Kurdish culture celebrating the beginning of spring) gathering of 2013, a letter from Öcalan was read out in the presence of more than one million people. In this letter he called for the end of the war and the continuation of the struggle for rights through political methods.
Erdoğan was facing contradictions with the army, the deep state, and, now also with the Fethullah Gülen movement, so he welcomed a period of peace on the Kurdish front. There was a big support from people Turkey as well. However, while Mr Öcalan was sincere in approaching this process as a way to end the war and create a democratic environment, Erdoğan saw it as a tactical measure, to be abandoned as soon as it no longer served his own political interests.
While these negotiations were taking place, the Kurds in Syria were achieving serious gains, especially with the victory in Kobanê, and had gathered world-wide sympathy. And in Turkey’s general elections on 7 June 2015, the HDP managed to get 13.2% of the vote and enter the Turkish parliament with 80 deputies, thus ensuring that Erdoğan lost his majority and was unable to put together a government.
Concluding that the peace process and dialogue with Öcalan were not serving his political interests, Erdoğan decided to re-impose a hard solitary confinement on Mr Öcalan and restart his war against the Kurds.
Since that time, Erdoğan has believed his political interests are best served by constantly increasing Öcalan’s isolation and by escalating war on many fronts, inside and outside Turkey.
During the 22 years that Mr Öcalan has been in Imralı prison, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has visited him eight times – including extraordinary as well as regular visits – and prepared reports. In almost all of these reports, they have drawn attention to how Mr Öcalan’s human rights have been violated and stated that this should be corrected. This is true of the latest report as well. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe mentioned these violations and reflected them in the decisions taken regarding Turkey. However, despite being an important member of the Council of Europe, Turkey has made a habit of violating the decisions, recommendations, judgements, and all values of the institution.
For 22 years, the island of Imralı has seen long periods of isolation. In those times, Kurds everywhere have increased their struggle via different forms of action, especially hunger strikes. As a result, sometimes the CPT itself goes to visit Mr Öcalan, or sometimes his lawyers or family members are allowed to meet him. And so, the protest actions are ended.
As long as Erdoğan finds it useful to have a peaceful environment, visits to İmrali island are allowed, but when he feels he could benefit from violence, he imposes heavy solitary confinement to achieve his political goals. In other words, Erdoğan’s approach depends on his own political needs, not the legal rights of Mr Öcalan. With this policy, Erdoğan is playing with both the Kurds and the European institutions of which Turkey is a member.
Of course, the Kurds do not accept this situation and resist it in many different ways – now, especially with hunger strikes in prisons and in many parts of the world. But what about the European institutions, whose values, principles, conventions, and decisions Turkey tramples on every day?