Abdullah Öcalan’s continued imprisonment in Turkey’s İmralı prison island lies at the heart of the legal, juridical and political crisis in contemporary Turkey, panellists stated at an online panel discussion organised by Medya News on Monday.
The event, entitled ‘Öcalan, political prisoners, and legal reform in Turkey’, was occasioned 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 ahead of the International Forum against Isolation, which placed the spotlight on the continued detention of the Kurdish political leader, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Along with members of the international legal delegation, which included representatives from Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and South Africa, the panel discussion also heard from the Asrın Law Office which has represented Öcalan since his 1999 capture. The week of 20 March also marks two years since Öcalan’s last contact with the outside world, a brief phone-call which was cut off after two minutes.
“Since its establishment, İmralı Prison has been governed through discriminatory, extraordinary, and inhumane measures, through the imposition of indefinite administrative statutes. There have even been certain laws that were legislated specifically in order to prevent Öcalan from benefiting from his inalienable rights. These measures, known as the “Öcalan laws”, were brought into force all over Turkey,” said the PKK leader’s lawyer Raziye Öztürk in her opening statement.
During their visit, the international delegation had occasion to meet with not only Mr. Öcalan’s legal team, but also Kurdish politicians, civil society activists and others affected by increasingly draconian legal repression in Turkey. German lawyer Milan Martin, who joined the delegation, said.
“We could see the political and social issues that the isolation of Mr. Öcalan has impacted. It was totally new, because we always knew what happened with the 24 years’ imprisonment, and the restrictions he has to suffer. For me, to speak with people and different NGOs telling us the impact this has [was significant]. We must remember that Mr. Öcalan is the political leader of the Kurdish people, and now there is no connection between him and the people he is representing,” Martin said.
Martin also outlined the impact of repressive measures on ordinary Kurdish society, highlighting recent incidences in which the bones of dead Kurdish militants were returned to their families in plastic bags, among other inhumane and provocative incidents.
“We met with lawyers who got kicked out of the court because they were simply trying to raise legal points, and in the end they got beaten up – things we couldn’t imagine here in Europe… It’s totally intimidating to hear something like this,” the German lawyer added.
The second half of the conversation focused on broader political issues linked to both Öcalan’s imprisonment and the general maltreatment of political prisoners in Turkey, as well as increasing repression of the Kurdish political opposition, particularly in the run-up to crucial 14 May elections.
Speaking on behalf of the UK’s trade union-led Freedom for Öcalan campaign, Clare Baker put the focus on the way Turkish President Erdoğan has been able to manipulate the flow of refugees into Europe, and latterly the crisis in Ukraine and his country’s prominent role as a NATO member, to extract concessions for domestic authoritarianism.
“The labelling of people as terrorists – trade unionists, opposition politicians, women’s activists, human rights defenders – gives the Turkish state an open door to removing all opposition to their policies of repression and violence, with very little or no international condemnation. This criminalisation and labelling of any opposition as terrorist is extremely effective in silencing any international opposition,” she said.
The panel discussion also took place in the context of upcoming elections in Turkey, where the pro-minority, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is expected to play a crucial role if they are not banned in an ongoing legal case against their organisation.
Nilüfer Koç, who represents the umbrella political organisation Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), argued that this crucial political juncture in Turkey requires the participation of the Kurdish political movement, and in particular its imprisoned figurehead:
“There is a need to consider that any debates about the solution to the Kurdish problem will need Öcalan’s direct participation. The is a clear condition from the Kurdish side, which has been repeatedly stated over the past decades,” Koç said.
“Now, there are better options than before as we have seen that the Turkish regime under Erdoğan is collapsing, in economy, in politics, and in the social field. From all sides of Turkish politics, you see signs of an urgent need for system change in Turkey, and the only one who can give a perspective regarding system change and democratic ideas in Turkey is Abdullah Öcalan,” she added.
In her concluding remarks, Öcalan’s lawyer Öztürk addressed the failure of pan-European as well as Turkish bodies to challenge the conditioned detention of the Kurdish political leader. She highlighted her legal firm’s main areas of work in a final call for increased international engagement with the issue of her client’s continued imprisonment.
“We can summarise our key aims and strategies as follows: First, exposing the unlawful situation in Imrali. Second, ensuring that institutions such as the European Council, ECHR, Committee of Ministers, UN, and CPT whose duty is to protect human rights fulfil their duties. Third, enabling European institutions to use their legal power against Turkey, encouraging them to abandon a passive stance and exert their influence. And finally, as a result of this, abolishing the systematic imposition of total isolation on our clients, working toward the goal of achieving Mr Öcalan’s physical freedom,” Öztürk said.
Listen to the full panel online here.