Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been serving a life sentence in the İmralı Island Prison in Turkey’s northwest since 1999. Over the years, there have been brief periods when he was able to regularly meet with his family and lawyers, however, he has been held in absolute incommunicado status since an interrupted phone call with his brother in March 2021.
The last time Öcalan’s lawyers were able to make contact with him was in August 2019. The last in-person visit by his family was in March 2020.
Prison authorities continue to issue months-long bans on Öcalan citing disciplinary issues, effectively taking away the PKK leader’s right to representation and defence. His lawyers argue that the disciplinary penalties that prevent attorney visits, were violations of Öcalan’s right to legal representation, as recognised in both domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Öcalan had written a letter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in December 2010 detailing his mental and physical conditions in solitary confinement for the first and last time.
Following is a reproduction of Öcalan’s letter to the ECHR.
On my prison life on İmralı Island – part 1
In all my talks and defence statements to date, I have avoided speaking of my personal life. Barring general talk of health issues and relations with the prison administration, I have not spoken of how I have resisted the isolation that the system designed especially for me and applies solely to me, nor how I endure being alone. I imagine the life practices that I have developed against this absolute solitude and inactivity will be what attracts most curiosity.
When I was still a young boy, an elder in our village regarded for his wisdom observing my behaviour and activities, said something to me that I still remember vividly: “Lo li ciyê xwe rûne, ma di te da cîwa heye?”, which translated means, “sit still, have you mercury in your veins?” I was as energetic as mercury is fluid. The gods of the ancient myths could probably never have thought of a worse punishment for me than tying me to the rocks of İmralı.
Still, I have now spent twelve years [21 years at the time of translation to English] in solitary confinement on this island. İmralı is notorious as an island where high-level state officials were put to serve sentences throughout history. The climate is both extremely humid and also harsh. It causes the constitution to deteriorate physically. Add to this isolation in a closed room, and the debilitating effect on the constitution is amplified still more. Also, I was placed on this island as I was starting to age. I was detained under supervision of the Special Forces Command for a long time. I think it is about two years since the Ministry of Justice took over my supervision.
I had no means of communicating with the outside world other than one book, one newspaper, and one magazine at a time, and a radio that only tuned to one station. My whole universe of communication consisted of half-hour visits from my brother every few months, and my weekly visits from the lawyers, though these were frequently curtailed due to “adverse weather conditions”. Naturally I don’t minimise these factors in my communication, but they were not enough to keep me on my feet. My mind and my will were to ensure I remained on my feet and did not deteriorate.
I had already isolated myself and prepared myself for solitude while I was still outside. I practised experiments in making the relations of family, close relatives and even close friends and comrades, all of which constitute a significant dependency, abstract. Relationships with women were also significant, and were among those I made abstract. I was the exact opposite of [the much-persecuted revolutionary poet] Nazım Hikmet. I had sworn off having children. When I was still in high school I got top marks from my literature teacher for an essay entitled, “To me you are a child that will never be born”. I think I wanted to deal with childhood lives that pass in hardship.
In any case, these experiences are not enough to explain my resilience in İmralı.
I must not move on without mentioning this: The conspiracy against me during the İmralı process was one that left no shred of hope behind. The protracted process and psychological warfare relating to the death sentence had the same aim. In the first days, even I could not fathom how I might be able to endure. I could not imagine how I would be able to get through even one year like this, let alone several. I had this thought which filled me with regret: “How can you hold thousands of people in a tiny room?”
Truly, as the Kurdish National Leadership, I had made myself into – or I was made into – the very synthesis of millions. This was also the people’s perception of the situation. If it is impossible for most people to tolerate separation from their families or children with no hope of being reunited, how then would I endure such a separation from the will of millions united to the death, never to achieve a reunion?
Letters from the people were not given to me, even those of just a few lines. To date I have not received any letters apart from a few exceptions from comrades in the dungeons, which are subjected to stringent censure and heavily redacted, and none at all from outside. Nor have I been able to send any letters.
All this may help with the understanding of the conditions of the isolation to some degree. But there were certain aspects unique to my position. I am in the position of being one who has led the emergence of many principles relating to the Kurds. All this output was stopped halfway, dependent on a life of freedom. I had led our people to emerge in all social fields, but I was unable to leave them in trusted hands or safe conditions.
Think of a lover: He has made the first move for his love, but just as their hands were about to meet, they were left in suspense. Such were my leaps for freedom out of social fields, similarly left in suspense. I had virtually dissolved myself into the realms of social freedom. I left very little behind to call ‘me’. The process of imprisonment, in the societal sense, had started at just such a time.
External conditions, the state, the administration, and the prison itself could have been fit for kings, and it still would not explain how it could be possible to endure the isolation created for me. The basic factors should not be sought in the conditions or the approach of the state. The determining factor was that I had persuaded myself of the conditions of isolation.
What grand reasons I would need to be able to endure isolation, and to prove that a great life could be displayed even under isolation! Thinking on this basis, I should first mention two conceptual developments.
The first was on the societal status of Kurds. For me to desire a free life, society, the society I was connected to itself would need to be free. Or more accurately, individual liberation could not happen without society. In the sociological sense, the freedom of the individual correlated in full to the level of freedom for the society. Applying this hypothesis to the Kurdish people, it was my perception that the life of the Kurds was no different from a pitch-black dungeon with no walls around it. I am not presenting this perception as a literary device. This is the absolute truth of the reality experienced.
Secondly, in order to fully understand the concept there is a need for adherence to an ethical principle. One must make oneself fully cognisant of the fact that it is possible to live life in absolute dependence on a community.
One of the most important beliefs modernity has engendered is the persuasion of the individual that s/he can survive without dependence on community. This persuasion is a false narrative. Actually there is no such life, but the acceptance of a manufactured virtual reality is imposed. Any deprivation of this principle expresses a dissolution of ethics. Here, reality and ethics are intertwined.
Liberal individualism is only possible via the dissolution of an ethical society, and the severing of its ties from those of the perception of reality. That it is posed as the dominant lifestyle of our era does not prove that it is right. The same goes for the capitalist system of which liberal individualism is the voice. I have reached this conclusion as a result of my focus on the Kurd as a phenomenon, and the Kurdish issue.
There is a duality in my life that needs to be well understood. This is the escape from, and the return to, Kurdishness. Cultural genocide has ensured that the conditions for escape are ready at all times, under any circumstances.
This escape is always encouraged. The moral principle comes into play just at this point. How right or good is it to flee one’s own society for the sake of the salvation of the individual?
I made it to my final year at university, which meant my individual salvation was guaranteed at the time. The beginning of my return to Kurdishness, or at least my sharpened focus on it just at this point, was an expression of a return to moral principle. In the socialist sense, this community did not have to be Kurdish, it could have been some other community. But you would still need to connect with a societal phenomenon one way or another in order to be able to be a moral individual. It was becoming clear to me that I could not be an immoral individual.
I am using the concept of morality here in the meaning of ethics, in the sense of ethical theory. I do not speak of a morality that is primitive, for instance one that dictates lifelong loyalty to any given family or similar group, because a connection to the Kurds as a phenomenon and their problematic condition was only possible through morals as ethics.
The absolute slave status of the Kurd – which remains true to this day -definitively prevented me from the dream, “a free life is possible”. I became convinced that: “I have no world where I can live freely.” I have been able to throughly compare an internal prison with an external one here. I have come to realise that captivity in the external prison is the more dangerous for the individual.
It is a great delusion for the Kurd to live believing they are free outside. A life dominated by delusion and lies is one that has suffered treason and loss.
The conclusion I draw from this is that a life on the outside is only possible under one condition: that one spends every minute of the day fighting for the existence and freedom of the Kurds, and the Turkish workers under the conditions of capitalism. Life for a Kurd with morals and dignity is only possible by becoming a round-the-clock fighter for freedom and existence.
Judging my life on the outside on this principle, I accept that I have lived an ethical life. It is in the nature of warfare that the response to that is death or imprisonment. A life without war is a life of massive fraudulence and indignity, and as such, enduring death or prison is in the the nature of the action. It would go against the very purpose of my life to be unable to endure prison conditions. Just as no form of the fight for existence and freedom is avoidable. This is also true for prison, because it too is a requirement of the fight for a free life.
When it comes to Kurds, and assuming one is a socialist and not under orders from capitalism, liberalism or a warped religious fanaticism, there is nothing to live for and no world to live in other than a fight for a moral and ethical life. Looking at the lives of friends in prison in the light of this concept, I saw that they had serious misconceptions. Either they convinced themselves or they were convinced of a life that could be lived in freedom outside. A sociological analysis would show that the role of prisons is to create a false yearning for freedom in the individual. Under the conditions of modernity prisons are very carefully built for this purpose. When people get out of prison, one option is that they accept a life of lies and deceit, in which case any expectation from them of revolutionary action or a moral and dignified life is in vain, an empty hope, or alternatively they will be able to conduct their struggle with better success thanks to the maturity that comes with the prison experience.