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This edition of our Podcast is the third and final of three interviews to mark the 23rd anniversary of the abduction and imprisonment of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan on the 15th February 1999.
The first interview was with Mahmoud Patel from the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group in South Africa, the second interview was with Simon Dubbins the International Director of the Unite union in the UK and in this edition we will be speaking to the Italian human rights lawyer, Barbara Spinelli who is Co-President of ELDH European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights.
The Kurdish issue in Turkey, is one of, the denial of the identity of the Kurdish people. A denial of their identity, their history, their culture, language and their right to decide their own future. A people who, because they decided not to abandon their identity were criminalised by the Turkish state and have been subjected for almost one hundred years, since the establishment of the modern Turkish state, to the most brutal and violent campaigns of repression that have included widespread war crimes of ethnic cleansing and forced displacement and crimes against humanity. Widespread crimes that despite being recognised by the UN and Human Rights groups, they have suffered to the almost universal silence of the international community and global governments who have supported the Turkish state’s brutal suppression of the Kurds with silence and worse complicity, because of arms deals and economic interests that have meant that governments have not robustly questioned nor challenged the Turkish state’s preferred framing of the Kurdish issue in any other way than one of fighting terrorism. This has left the Kurds to struggle mostly alone.
However, after the events in North and East Syria, particularly the Kurds defence of the city of Kobane against an overwhelming attack by ISIS in 2004, the world is beginning to recognise the Kurds as brave freedom fighters and people who share the values of the democratic world in fighting against racism, sexism and also fighting against radical Jihadist terrorist organisations such as ISIS and al Qaeda while at the same time, fighting for a radical democracy in the Middle East that promotes equal representation, women’s freedom and progressive ecological principles.
On 12 November 1998 Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), having been pressurised by Turkey and the Assad regime to leave Syria and having travelled to Russia arrived at Rome’s airport after arriving on a flight from Moscow where he applied for political asylum.
The prime minister of the day Massimo D’Alema was put under a huge amount of international political pressure as tens of thousands of Kurds gathered in Rome’s piazzas in support of their leader and European countries and leaders were thrown into panic about what to do about this situation. In the end, Öcalan himself having spent over two months in Rome technically under ‘house arrest’ but able to receive guests and visitors at the housing complex where he was staying, and himself not wanting to outstay his welcome and put the Italian prime minister, Massimo D’Alema under anymore pressure that was coming from mainly Turkish, the US but also other intelligence agencies, he decided to leave Rome and as we know after that, then travelling back to Russia, then to Greece, and eventually arrived in Nairobi in Kenya where he was abducted as he left the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, on route to South Africa where Nelson Mandela’s government had guaranteed him political asylum.
Abducted and flown back to Turkey and straight on to the high security prison island of Imrali where he has spent the last 23 years in almost total isolation.
So, to look at the case of Abdullah Ocalan from an Italian perspective, international human rights perspective and to find out more about the Imrali initiative, I am pleased and very honoured to be joined today by Barbara Spinelli.
Barbara Spinelli is Co-President of The European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights. A human rights lawyer, who has been banned from Turkey for “her collaboration with lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan”. She is a member of the Bologna Bar Council’ Human Rights Committee and of the Commission for Relations in the Mediterranean Area of the Italian Bar Council and Femicide expert for the United Nations.
Barbara began by saying that the Italian government had recognised Abdullah Öcalan as a refugee but has done nothing over the years about his continued imprisonment by Turkey. Which is of course important as Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and has ratified international treaties on human rights so has a duty to respect human rights, as an obligation by the Turkish authorities as ignoring their duties in regards to human rights weakens not just the system in Turkey but the whole human rights system that has been signed by all of the signature countries.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Abdullah Öcalan was denied the right to hope for release amongst other rights such as isolation and no access to lawyers. It is a very serious issue that every lawyer, human rights activist and anyone concerned in the legal field as this is an issue of the implementation of a legal ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. Barbara said that also he is denied his rightful status as a political prisoner and nothing has been heard from him since 25 March last year.
Nothing is known of his health conditions so this is a very serious human rights issue that should be on the agenda of every human rights organisation and legal monitors. Barbara said that she had been attending events in relation to the Imrali Initiative during the day and that they had invited Turkey’s Justice Minister to a virtual meeting to discuss the issues of human rights in the relation to Öcalan’s continued imprisonment but that they had no reply. She said that they will have two days of virtual online meetings with different organisations in Turkey including women’s organisations, political parties and human rights groups.
She said that they had received very worrying information from them and that they will be issuing a press release regarding their findings as a result of the Imrali delegation’s two days of meetings and will then prepare a report on their findings. She said that this years report will be stronger than last years.
Barbara explained that she has been a trial observer at many trials in Turkey including the KCK cases and trials against Öcalan’s lawyers. She was also an electoral observer for the Turkish elections in 2015.
She described in with graphic detail her human rights observation work in Kurdish cities in South East Turkey such a Cizre, in September 2016, where she was the only international observer that she described as the worst experience of her life. She spoke with emotion of entering the city after weeks of curfew on the city and of scrambling over destroyed buildings, walking for hours through ruble and coming across dead civilian bodies lying in the street having been shot in the head by snipers for simply coming out of their houses to look for bread as they had been starving for weeks under the brutal curfew that saw the cutting of electricity, the destruction of water supplies and the killing of animals that lay in the streets next to human bodies.
She said it was clear that the aim was the destruction of the Kurdish population. Barbara said that she was so shocked that such a horror could unfold while people still would be going on holidays to the beaches of Antalya as no news was reported about these events which were not happening in Syria but inside the borders of Turkey. After that, she continued to write reports of the destruction including of other Kurdish cities such as Sirnak, Nusaybin and Sur etc and eventually she was banned from travelling to Turkey by the Turkish government, which she is appealing in the European courts. She said that the destruction of the cities was the beginning of what we can call a cultural genocide.
The end of the peace process and the increasing isolation of Mr Öcalan, the increasing withdrawal of rights for Kurdish political prisoners, the increase in torture and illegal practices, the femicide and attacks on young people, the ban of the HDP going through the constitutional court, the displacement of more than 3 million people, the demographic changes, are all parts of a mosaic that is the political and cultural genocide of the Kurds she said. This is unacceptable she said. So, we have a duty to show the international community and the world the real dimension she said.
She then explained the situation of the Kurds in Italy and how Kurds have much more freedom in Italy than in other European states and that there is a large and thriving solidarity movement in Italy with many networks and explained how many Italian local councils had awarded Abdullah Öcalan honorary citizenship. She detailed how she is working very hard on the rights of lawyers in Turkey and to highlight the denial of the right of Abdullah Öcalan to legal representation which is unacceptable under international law.
Barbara said in conclusion that we have to continue to fight for human rights and defend the rule of law.