A delegation made up of politicians, academics and journalists from across Europe and beyond recently gathered under the lead of lawyers and representatives of legal organisations to visit Turkey and meet with politicians, lawyers and civil society actors there.
The 36-strong delegation dispersed to Ankara, Istanbul and Kurdish-majority Diyabakır (Amed) to discuss the continued isolation of Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan, the upcoming Turkish elections, and worsening attacks on democracy, the rule of law and the legitimate political opposition being conducted by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erik Edman is the political director of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a pan-European political movement founded in 2016 by figures including former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat to push for regional political reform on a progressive basis. Edman spoke to Medya News to discuss the visit, his observations on the state of Turkish democracy, and DiEM25’s analysis of Europe-Turkey relations.
What were your observations on conditions for political prisoners in Turkey?
The trip became about much more than just Mr Öcalan, but the general state of human rights in Turkey… One of the things that became clear is that everything starts as an emergency measure, and Imrali prison is the first place those emergency measures are being implemented, because of security measures, as the regime presents it. Essentially, Mr Öcalan has not been allowed to be in touch with his legal team or family for the past two years. People don’t know if he’s alive or not.
This issue was securitized, especially after the  coup attempt, and since then, there has been a very coherent degrading of the conditions of prisoners in Imrali, and what civil society actors and lawyers told us was that this is becoming more and more the norm in various prisons around the country, especially for political prisoners. The groups that are most affected are the Kurdish people, but also women, LGBTQ+ people and various minorities, and all of it is being done under the pretext of securitization. At the heart of this idea is the connection of the Kurdish struggle for justice with a security issue for the Turkish state.
How does the treatment of political prisoners factor in to 2023 elections in Turkey?
Especially in the lead-up to the elections in May, Mr Erdoğan has been using [the Kurdish issue] as a talking-point in order to stir up concern in society, reinforcing this idea of a need for a strong leader – it’s a standard recipe for authoritarian leaders. What we agreed upon as a delegation, is that this is of course a legal matter, but its resolution is not a legal one. Turkey knows it’s acting illegally, Europe knows that what’s going on is illegal.
The resolution of this matter is being blocked for Mr Öcalan and all political prisoners in Turkey – including lawyers, who are being imprisoned everywhere, because they defend prisoners, including Mr Öcalan, such that the legal profession doesn’t feel in a place to act. So the resolution of Mr Öcalan’s case, and the general case of political prisoners and the conditions in which they are being held, is one which can only be reached through political, and not legal, means.
How can democratic movements in Europe create space for the opposition in Turkey to make its voice heard?
It’s important not to be delusional about what can work and what cannot. As I said, the status quo right now is largely the result of European and NATO foreign policy. Institutions such as the Council of Europe, the Committee to Prevent Torture, the European Commission, are all bodies that are not willing to up the pressure against Erdoğan’s regime because of their own geopolitical interests in the region.
As such, what concrete steps can progressive forces take in Europe to push for reform?
The first thing we would like to see is a regional conference of the south-eastern Mediterranean, where all parties in the region can come round the negotiating table and resolve, in common, the issues we’ve been facing. Instead, the strategy Mr Erdoğan has been pursuing is one of bilateral talks, where he can use the power he has as leverage to essentially bully his neighbours into various positions, with the support, behind closed doors, of other political actors such as the United States, Germany, or France, to a certain extent. That is something that’s far harder to do in a regional conference where all these nations can come together in a spirit of regional cooperation.
[Second], we need to keep the door open for further conversations about Turkey’s role in Europe. The way Turkey’s bid to join the European Union has been put on ice is a breeding ground for conflict. It needs to be reopened, rediscussed, renegotiated with a variety of actors, and needs to be properly resolved.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.