Harsh restrictions imposed on jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan have spread throughout the Turkish prison system, said members of a recent legal delegation to Turkey in a press conference where they presented a new report highlighting the conditions of Öcalan’s detention, described as ‘the most extreme for any political prisoner in Europe.’
The report “Solitary Confinement and Isolation Policies in Turkey” was produced by a January 2023 delegation of around 40 European lawyers, plus MPs and political party representatives which travelled to Turkey to meet with human rights and civil society actors.
The visit took place ahead of the International Forum against Isolation, which places the spotlight on the continued detention of Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), jailed in Turkey’s İmralı island prison since 1999. The international legal delegation included legal professionals and other actors from Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and South Africa.
Introducing the report, Paula Martin of the IACTA Feminist Lawyers’ Cooperative in Barcelona, stated that the delegation was launched because “the situation in Turkish prisons is not one that follows democratic rules… not only in order to defend human rights, but also to remember their international responsibility as a member of the Council of Europe and signatory to the Convention on Torture.”
Martin’s colleague Altamira Gulebenzu then spoke to highlight the particularly harsh measures imposed on Abdullah Öcalan in İmralı.
“The leader of the Kurdish freedom movement is held in the most extreme conditions of any political prison in Europe. We have met the lawyers who represent Öcalan and the other three clients on İmralı, who have been held in extraordinary isolation for a very long time, in which fundamental rights and freedoms have been systematically violated,” she said.
“The right to legal assistance is a fundamental right of any prisoner,” Gulebenzu said. Öcalan has been held in total incommunicado for two years, with only one legal meeting in over a decade. Gulebenzu added that this was a violation of rights under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or so-called ‘Nelson Mandela rules’.
“Lawyers representing Öcalan have been charged with different crimes to do with aiding a terrorist organisation. This reflects the extreme human rights abuses against Kurdish people in Turkey. The authorities must respect fundamental rights in İmralı,” she added.
British lawyer Sophie Caseley said the use of arbitrary and indefinite solitary confinement in İmralı prison had now “spread to other prisons in Turkey, affecting mainly so-called ‘political prisoners’ kept in high-security prisons.” These policies have also “spread to wider society, targeting human rights defenders and lawyers,” she added.
“Turkey has refused to review the sentence imposed on Öcalan… This basically permits isolation to exist unchecked, with no checks and balances… Moving on to other political prisoners outside İmralı, they are often charged under anti-terrorism laws, kept in isolation, and prevented from visiting their family and their lawyers,” Caseley said, adding that political prisoners were excluded as well from early-release programmes implemented during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The state has criminalised freedom of expression, of assembly, and other human rights… targeting human rights defenders accused of so-called political crimes, while lawyers who have simply travelled to Imrali prison have been arrested, detained, charged, or stripped of their licences, simply for making public statements sympathetic to the Kurdish cause,” the lawyer said.
The political situation in Turkey is currently highly dynamic, following a recent, deadly earthquake which claimed over 50,000 lives and increased pressure on the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ahead of crucial 14 May elections.
“The isolation in Imralı didn’t start with [Erdoğan’s governing party] AKP, and won’t end with AKP being dismissed from power. We hope that after the election, we might witness some democratisation, but we need much more than that to change power structures in Turkey,” Öcalan’s legal representative Rengin Ergül said when asked by Medya News what the impact of a change of government might be on the Turkish detention system.
Download the full report here.