There is a historical and political affinity between South African icon Nelson Mandela and jailed Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan. Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were both staunch supporters of the Kurdish struggle, with Mandela refusing a prize given to him by the Turkish authorities in 1992, citing his opposition to their repression of their Kurds, and sending a famous message of support to a Kurdish rally. Indeed, Öcalan was en route to South Africa to meet with the Mandela government in pursuit of political asylum when he was abducted from the Greek embassy in Nairobi by Turkish intelligence agents.
In this light, descriptions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder as the ‘Mandela of the Middle East’ are more than simply rhetoric, or more than just a question of solidarity between national liberation struggles. Mandela spent 27 years in jail; Öcalan is now approaching his own quarter-century of imprisonment in strikingly similar circumstances. And in both cases, the incarceration of these towering political figures has had a profound effect on the legal and political fabrics of their respective countries.
Much like many Kurdish political prisoners, Mandela led a staunch campaign of resistance to the conditions of his incarceration, winning some reforms to the punishing disciplinary system imposed on political prisoners on the infamous Robben Island, home to no white detainees but only Black prisoners (particularly singled out for punishment), as well as Indian and coloured detainees, to use the South African terminology. Mandela was permitted one letter and one 30‐minute visit every six months, and denied permission to attend the funeral of his mother, and one of his sons, who died in a car accident. Letters were censored and phone-calls monitored, while Mandela refused government offers of release in exchange for concessions in the conviction that he needed to achieve freedom for all South Africans, not just himself.
Öcalan’s detention has been marked by similar gross abuses of civil liberties, rule of law and the rights of political detainees. It has just passed two entire years since Öcalan’s last, brief phone-call or contact with the outside world, while throughout the past decade he has only been able to meet with his lawyers during one brief period in 2019. Öcalan was entirely alone on his own prison island, İmrali, for many years, until being joined by three other Kurdish political prisoners. These detainees are almost never allowed to socialize at all, with Öcalan subjected to the harshest restrictive measures of any political prisoner in Europe, subject to punitive measures repeatedly and arbitrarily used to keep him confined to his cell without recreation or socialization. Yet despite this extreme isolation, he remains a locus of the Kurdish liberation struggle and the wider movement for democracy and reform in Turkey.
The UN’s expanded guidelines for the protection of prisoners are known as the ‘Nelson Mandela laws’, in honour of the celebrated political prisoner. They enshrine crucial rights as to prisoners’ inherent dignity and value, prohibiting torture, ill-treatment, and various forms of degradation and restraint, notably restricting the use of solitary confinement, to Mandela “the most forbidding aspect of prison life.”
In Öcalan’s case, it is clear these guidelines are not being observed. Öcalan is older now than Mandela was on his own release, yet he continues to suffer under an extraordinarily harsh regime of isolation, clearly intended to break his spirit and quash the ongoing Kurdish resistance. The only laws which bear Öcalan’s name are Turkish measures exempting political prisoners from the basic rights afforded to other detainees. The so-called “Öcalan laws” or “Öcalan loophole” have seen the restrictive regime in İmrali extended throughout Turkey’s brutal prison system, home to thousands of political prisoners, including 11 pro-Kurdish MPs, scores of journalists, and many activists, lawyers and others struggling for reform in Turkey.
As Öcalan approaches his own quarter-century of imprisonment, we can only hope that one day the ‘Mandela of the Middle East’ will be able to lend his own name to laws defending, rather than destroying, the fundamental rights for which both leaders, Kurdish and African, have sacrificed so much.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.