At a recent press conference in Iceland, the İmralı Peace Delegation – made up of prominent European politicians – urged the end of Abdullah Öcalan’s isolation in İmralı Island Prison as a crucial step towards fostering peace in the region.
Ögmundur Jónasson, a former Minister of the Interior for Iceland with a long career in domestic and European politics, was among those who participated in the 2023 Delegation. Jónasson has also spent many years advocating for Kurdish autonomy and a peaceful and democratic resolution to the crisis in the region, including as a spokesman for the Freedom for Öcalan campaign.
Speaking to Medya News, Jónasson described the situation in Turkey as ‘worse than ever’. Jónasson also highlighted the continued need for international pressure on the Turkish authorities, particularly over the continued isolation of the detained Kurdish political leader.
Edited highlights follow, while you can watch the full conversation above.
You’ve visited Turkey on several previous delegations. What was different this time around?
The situation now is worse than ever. The number of people in prison, the number of people in prison because of their views, not being able to exercise their democratic rights. In short, the situation is worse. I would like to refer to findings made by our expert on prisons, Denis O’Hearn, who called our attention to the fact that before the start of the Erdoğan regime in 2003, the situation in the prisons has been steadily getting worse. In 2003, or thereabouts, there were 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants in prison. Now it is 374,000. This ranks Turkey second in the world in terms of incarceration.
Given such a high rate of incarceration, why is Öcalan’s case particularly important?
We measure democracy not by presidential elections, or parliamentary elections, but by the rights the citizens have. To exercise their basic human rights. If you want to democratise Turkish society, you cannot do this without serving the Kurdish question. The precondition for solving the Kurdish question is the freedom of Öcalan, that he be allowed to come to the negotiating table.
We only have to look to and learn from recent history. What happened in 2013 to 2015 [during peace negotiations between Öcalan and Turkish authorities]? The prison cell was not open, but the windows were ajar. Abdullah Öcalan was allowed to take part in peace negotiations. These negotiations were very promising indeed. The prison windows were closed abruptly in 2015. So I am simply referring to history.
Can European pressure have an impact on Öcalan’s detention, or is this an internal question for Turkey?
The question is what moves Europe. I’m a little bit cynical on that. The lessons of history are also this: that when Europe has an option to choose between human rights and security, it chooses security. This means, of course, their own interests. Europe can’t be moved, and what will eventually move Europe is the struggle within Kurdish and Turkish society. That is the driving force. And therefore, it’s all-important to convey to Europe and convey to the world the situation in Turkey and the commitment we could feel all around.
Calls for Öcalan’s freedom are regularly directed to the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Committee for Prevention of Torture (CPT). Do you think these tactics can be effective?
Of course, they can do more. From time to time, the CoE and its CPT, which is concerned with torture in prisons, came out with recommendations. The last recommendations came out in May 2019. They were criticising Turkish authorities for not complying with human rights conventions. They had specific recommendations, or demands, when it came to the visits of lawyers to prisoners, to Öcalan and other prisoners… But then, nothing. You asked, what can be done? Well, the least that can be done is to keep this issue alive and to the forefront and prioritise it. We have been suggesting an ad-hoc committee be set up to address these conditions, the isolation of Öcalan. That’s the least that can be done.
You’ve been involved in many rights issues and political campaigns. What has kept you involved with the Kurdish issue for so long?
I followed the way Öcalan and his colleagues’ thinking gradually changed with the time, adapting to issues that came up, and I found the answers he was giving to be very convincing. The emphasis on democratic rights, democratic confederalism, the emphasis on ecology, on women’s rights. [I saw] this idea, that you should start by changing yourselves, not waiting for the revolution to give freedom to women – that you don’t wait for the revolution to pay respect to democratic and ecological issues – but you do it now, in everything you undertake, in the way you organise your political institutions. And I saw that this was happening, in effect.