Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers have failed to take adequate steps for Turkey to implement necessary legal amendments to ensure the so-called ‘right to hope’ for persons convicted to aggravated life sentences, lawyer Alişan Şahin told Mezopotamya Agency on Wednesday.
The committee “should have been the ones to follow up, inspect and implement the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling on the matter, but haven’t run the mechanism for eight years”, Şahin said.
The ECHR in 2014 ruled that Turkey had violated the European Convention on Human Rights Article 3 on the prohibition of torture over an application by Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been serving an aggravated life sentence in the İmralı island prison since his capture and conviction in 1999.
Öcalan was originally sentenced to death over treason and terrorism offences. When Turkey outlawed the death penalty as part of its bid to join the European Union, all death sentences were replaced with what Turkish law calls aggravated life sentences. The penalty includes more severe restrictions regarding prison conditions than the regular life sentence, and denies any possibility of parole for convicts.
Such imposition of a life sentence without any possibility of release on parole is in violation of the prohibition of torture, the top court ruled, stating that “in order to remain compatible with Article 3, a life sentence must provide both a prospect of release and a possibility of review”.
The ECHR has issued similar rulings on applications by Emin Gurban, Hayati Kaytan and Civan Boltan, all convicted over their ties to the PKK.
The CoE Committee of Ministers “opens the ECHR’s authority and rulings to questioning, negating the EU’s and the ECHR’s decisions”, Şahin said. “The committee has failed to fulfil its responsibility for eight years. They must conduct follow-ups and inspections in line with universal legal norms.”
Lawyers from the Asrın Law Office, where Öcalan’s lawyers also work, filed an appeal with the Committee of Ministers in August for the implementation of the ECHR ruling on the PKK leader. In response, Turkey told the committee that “while it is possible for convicts issued aggravated life sentences to be released on parole, certain crimes have been exempted from this possibility”.
Ankara passed amendments to its anti-terror legislation in 2004 and law on execution of sentences in 2005 and 2006, setting the exemption for terrorism charges.
The committee, as part of its oversight duties, gave Turkey until the end of September 2022 to provide information on its plans to rectify violations of Article 3, namely via passing legislation ensuring the right to hope for all.
The information it requested from Turkey includes the number of prisoners sentenced to such irreducible life sentences without possibility for review, and the state of progress in the adoption of measures to bring national legislation in line with ECHR standards.
“(Turkey) is trying to construct an execution regime worse than death,” Şahin continued. “One of the fundamental goals of penal law is rehabilitation. A social state cannot implement such a measure, that would only happen under fascist regimes.”
Amendments to sentence executions ensured that political prisoners were exempt from any sentence reductions, the lawyer said. “Never before the 2020 amendment had an amendment passed to reduce petty criminals’ sentences while increasing necessary time served for political prisoners.”
The absolute isolation conditions Öcalan has been held under since 2011 have spread throughout society, coming to affect all prisoners and wide factions of Turkey’s population, Şahin continued. “Democratic forces in the country and Turkey’s judiciary have failed to stand against this isolation, and today efforts continue to legitimise it.”
The treatment of Öcalan, who has been unable to meet with his family or lawyers for years and remains in an absolute state of incommunicado, “serves to intimidate the rest of society”, the lawyer said. “There is no guarantee that this won’t happen to others in the future.”
Öcalan would need to complete 36 years behind bars in good behaviour to be eligible for release on parole, according to some interpretations of Turkish law. However, the ECHR has ruled that life sentences are to be reviewed after 25 years, in the case of Vinter and others v. United Kingdom, which the Öcalan ruling also references.
Turkey’s constitution stipulates that international treaties have precedence over domestic laws in relation to rights and freedoms, and as such, the ECHR ruling would override Turkey’s set limit of 36 years, making Öcalan eligible for a review by 15 February 2024.