On Wednesday, a little way along from the permanent vigil for Abdullah Öcalan, where Kurds have been calling for the release of their imprisoned leader since June 2012, the cold damp boulevard outside the Council of Europe (CoE) in Strasbourg was once again noisy with Kurdish demonstrators.
Outside the building, the road was brightened by coloured rain capes, alongside the usual flags and banners, while copious tea and soup kept protestors warm. Inside, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers was discussing Öcalan’s human rights.
The European Convention on Human Rights considers imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a form of torture. It deprives the prisoner of that most vital human emotion – hope.
In March 2014, Öcalan’s lawyers successfully argued at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that his life imprisonment without any possibility of conditional release is a violation of article 3 of the Convention. This was followed by similar rulings for three other prisoners who Turkey has also sentenced to life without parole, but Turkey has never acted on these rulings, and up until this week, their failure to do so has gone without official comment.
Now, for the first time in the more than seven years since the Öcalan judgement, these cases are on the agenda of the Committee of Ministers, the body charged with ensuring the court’s judgements are obeyed. The demonstrators are determined to make it more difficult for the committee to put the judgement aside for another seven years.
In fact, Turkey is very much in the dock at this week’s committee meeting as they have not met the final deadline set for the release of businessman-philanthropist Osman Kavala, in compliance with a ECtHR ruling from 2019. If the Council of Europe’s institutions are to maintain credibility, then they will have to take the first steps in a process that could ultimately lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the Council.
(The case of Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is also under discussion, but that has not yet reached the final deadline stage.)
The ministers – or their deputies – are more comfortable talking about Kavala than Öcalan, but human rights must be universal. And Turkey’s ‘action plan’, as submitted to the committee in response to Öcalan’s case, does not begin to address the substantive issue.
The demonstrators are also calling on the CPT – the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – to follow up and act on their own criticism of the treatment of Öcalan and the other three prisoners held in İmralı island prison, specifically the prisoners’ almost total isolation and the authorities’ refusal to allow visits or contact with their families and lawyers.
The CPT is responsible for monitoring the prison conditions in Council of Europe member countries. In their 2020 report, based on an inspection visit made in May 2019 (following a mass hunger strike against Öcalan’s isolation), the CPT found the conditions in İmralı unacceptable. However, they did not take the opportunity to go back to İmralı when they visited Turkey again in January this year. At their 2019 visit, they found that the İmralı prisoners were kept in total isolation except for a tightly-controlled nine hours a week.
Since 2011, Öcalan’s lawyers have been given permission to visit him just five times out of 962 applications. His last contact with the outside world was a curtailed 4-5 minute phone call with his brother last March – and this was only conceded after protests responding to rumours of his death. Now the lawyers have just been told that he was given a six-month ban on lawyers’ visits in September, for an unspecified disciplinary punishment, and another three-month ban on family visits in August.
All this breaches the UN-agreed Mandela Rules for the minimum treatment of prisoners, which state that “disciplinary sanctions or restrictive measures shall not include the prohibition of family contact”, and that “solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible”.
The Committee of Ministers decisions will be published after the end of their meeting, which finishes on Thursday.
After a break today, when President Macron is visiting the Council and actions are banned, delegations from different parts of Europe and different groups are scheduled to take turns at the demonstration for each weekday until the 17 December, when there will be a general gathering.