The İmralı Delegations to Turkey began in 2016. They are made up of people from different countries and submit formal requests to visit Abdullah Öcalan in İmralı prison. These requests are ignored, but the delegations are able to meet with lawyers and human rights organisations, and to draw up reports of the situation facing political prisoners in Turkey, as well as draw attention to Öcalan’s situation. Laura Castel is vice chair of the Left Group in the Council of Europe and is on the Council’s monitoring committee – which keeps an eye on member states, including Turkey. Here are the key points from the interview:
Can you explain very briefly how you came to be interested in the situation of the Kurds and what made you want to be part of the İmrali delegation?
“I am Catalan, and I think we share, Catalans and Kurds, the fight for self determination rights. Also we are oppressed people – of course not in as large a situation as it is in Kurdistan or in Turkey, but I think we are a kind of brother people.”
She was asked by the International Initiative Freedom for Ocalan Peace in Kurdistan to take part in the delegation and feels it an honour to have done so.
What were your main impressions from the visit – both confirmations of what you already knew and surprises?
Castel described the impact of hearing about the situation first hand. As well as Öcalan’s own unparalleled isolation, they discussed Turkey’s growing authoritarianism more generally:
“Also we realised that the last eight years Turkey is under some security policy, totally polarised. The courts are criminalised, the isolation regime in Imrali has risen to a torture level, and the Turkish government is using Öcalan as a political weapon, in our view. And no-one is mentioning the human rights violations and the extreme isolation and the torture. Also, we know that the European Court of Human Rights ruled against [Öcalan’s] aggravated life sentence in 2014, but in a decade no application has happened. And the CPT, which is an organ of the Council of Europe against torture, is normalising the situation. And the lawyers of Öcalan told us that between human rights and security, Europe always choses security, and the violations of human rights committed in Turkey are ignored.”
“Also, the terrorist law is used against the opposition – against even media and the press, the lawyers, members of parliament. All are subjected to terrorism law. Also, we have met with ÖHD, the Lawyers for Freedom Association, and they shared with us that the las eight years have been a genocide approach. It’s a cultural and political operation and the rest of society are affected too. The punishments are more severe. The approach of the government is discipline the opposition by putting them in prison. In criminal cases they say that there are double standards applied for Kurdish people, because the government is creating an environment of fear, arresting people indiscriminately, and the intelligence services are used for digging in the background of workers, accusing them of terrorism and eventually expelling [them]. The conclusion is that Imrali has been a laboratory of the worst practices [that are] afterwards applied to the rest of the prisons.”
The delegation heard from the Saturday Mothers how their protests for disappeared family members have been increasingly met with arrests, and from families of prisoners about worsening and illegal prison conditions, while women’s organisations told them about the vital role of Öcalan in leading the movement for women’s freedom.
You were in Turkey during the election campaign in which Öcalan and the PKK have repeatedly been portrayed as the ultimate enemy. Were you able to discuss the implications of this campaigning, and how can the delegation help to put the idea of a peaceful negotiated settlement back on the table?
“In every meeting all the people said that Öcalan is the solution, so releasing Öcalan is the solution. And they said to us a message to the Council of Europe, which is that Öcalan can change the political environment in Turkey, that he is the key factor for resolution: release Öcalan and sit and talk with him in order to negotiate a political solution by peaceful means, involving Öcalan. So, there is no solution of the Kurdish situation without Öcalan. That is the main message that several groups of people shared with us. Also, for instance, the Peoples’ Democratic Congress, they said to us, they ask the Council of Europe to open a new peace process, a general amnesty, the application of the European Court of Human Rights decisions, release the political prisoners. We noted that every person we met affirmed that the fate of Kurds is connected with whatsoever to Öcalan. So I think that the main message to the Council of Europe is to set a negotiation. We ask for a mediation of the international organisations between both the Turkish government and the Kurds, with Öcalan leading the Kurdish party.”
I know that the report by the delegation was presented at the meeting the Council of Europe has just had in Reykjavik in Iceland, so I was wondering what sort of reception you got there, but also what more you can do and others can do to persuade the Council of Europe to take more action?
“We have been taking advantage of the Reykjavik Summit – the summit of the heads of government and state of the Council of Europe member states – and we organised a press conference with the Imrali Peace Delegation, and we explained all these findings, and we asked in the press conference to the members states of the Council of Europe to take this mission of mediation between both sides and launch a negotiation for a peace release, for a peaceful negotiation and also finding a solution in the Kurdish situation, but in a way of equal arts. Having the leader in prison is not a solution. So, the solution is release Öcalan and let him lead the Kurds’ part of the negotiation table. This was our message to the Council of Europe members, but also with this report we are drafting now, we will send to the main organs of the Council of Europe.”
In a final discussion about the role of European countries, Castel stressed that neutrality is not possible, and the need for real internationalism.