Opposite the austere exterior of the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg is a stone temple – a garden pavilion from a previous age that has become the base for a permanent vigil for imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Every day for the last ten years a small group of Kurds has set up a stall of books and pamphlets outside the pavilion, put out their information boards, and unfurled their flags. They have become part of the streetscape of this leafy centre of European institutions, with the risk that they could just be taken for granted, so it is important that this tenth anniversary is being marked by events to draw attention to the vigil. Activities are taking place both within the Council building and outside.
The Council of Europe was established to promote human rights. Its organisations include the European Court of Human Rights and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). As a member of the Council, Turkey is bound by its rules – even if they have been brazen in ignoring them. The CPT is able to visit Öcalan in prison when no one else can, though they have not exercised this right since 2019.
Since his capture in a CIA-led international operation in 1999, Öcalan has been imprisoned on Imrali Island in conditions that breach both international and national laws on human rights. The trial has been condemned as unfair. The sentence – life without parole – is deemed illegal because it denies him hope. And, on top of this, visits from his lawyers and his family have been severely restricted. The rules are there. The rules have been broken and have been shown to have been broken. The question now is what will be done about this, and will the institutions use the powers that they have to put pressure on Turkey. This week’s events are a contribution to the Kurdish call for action.
The vigil is usually carried out by groups of Kurds from different areas who change every week. This week the people outside the council are young internationalists from different backgrounds and countries, and two of them told me on camera why they were there.
Wednesday lunchtime, a fringe meeting was held in the council building. The audience was not large, but it provided an opportunity for interested assembly delegates to find out more from people involved, and the publicity around the meeting will also help to raise awareness. After introductions from Feleknas Uca of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), herself an assembly delegate, and Havin Güneşer of the International Initiative Freedom for Ocalan Peace in Kurdistan, we heard from Ögmunder Jónasson. Jónasson is a former member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who has become deeply involved in the Kurdish cause, partly as a consequence of observing the dedication of the people on the vigil outside. He has taken part in five “Imrali delegations”, which – though never allowed to go to Imrali itself – investigate and report on Öcalan’s situation and the deteriorating conditions in Turkish prisons more generally.
Jónasson was followed by Raziye Öztürk, one of Öcalan’s lawyers, who described Imrali as a “torture regime within the borders of Europe”. Since 2011, apart from five meetings in 2019 following a massive hunger strike in Turkey and beyond, Öcalan’s lawyers have not been able to contact him. Since 2014 he has had only five visits from his family. He has only twice been allowed a phone call. There has been no contact at all since March 2021. But, as Öztürk explained, the European institutions have either been inactive or taken years to respond. Meanwhile the situation faced by Öcalan has got even worse, and prison without parole is being imposed on thousands of prisoners.
Last to speak was Dilek Öcalan, a former MP for the HDP and Abdullah Öcalan’s niece, who was one of the people who took part in the 2019 hunger strike here in Strasbourg. She stressed the political implications for democracy and for peace in the Middle East of Öcalan’s isolation and of the criminalisation of the Kurds.
I had last spoken to Dilek Öcalan when she was on hunger strike, and after the meeting I asked her more about the hunger strike’s importance for breaking the isolation imposed on her uncle. She explained that it was done as a last resort after all other methods had failed, and that the impact of the isolation was acting as a form of suffocation on people in Turkey and beyond. She told me that Turkey had to respond to the huge support given to the hunger strikers and also the loss of life (of some of the hunger strikers in the prisons); and that now the situation has been so widely exposed, campaigners will continue to put pressure on the Council of Europe to follow the Councils own rules.
I asked Raziye Öztürk what a lawyer’s role involves when they cannot talk to their client. She explained how every time they are illegally knocked back by the system, they raise new court cases in protest, and they will pursue them up the system as far as the European Court of Human Rights – though the system is often deliberately slow and unresponsive. They continually ask to visit Imrali (two times a week). When they get no answer, they apply to the court. When the authorities refuse to give a reason why they can’t see their client, they apply to court. When they are told he can’t be visited because of a disciplinary punishment they ask the reason, and when they are denied access to the file, they apply to court.
Speaking with Havin Güneşer and Ögmunder Jónasson, I asked if they had perceived a change in attitudes over the years. Both felt there was more awareness among the politicians but that this has still to reach those who make the decisions. As Jónasson put it, “the institutional world is very slow”. He explained that he regarded the campaign as a two-fold task: to ensure that human rights conventions are respected, and also as part of the pursuit of peace in Kurdistan and an end to Turkish aggression. And he added that a strong grassroots movement is the only thing that will make this institutional world tremble, and that the vigil is part of this movement: “They are not standing there in vain. They are having an effect – certainly on me… The vigil gives the representatives inside strength.”