Late last year, a mild U.S. statement calling on Turkey to implement a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling nearly caused a diplomatic crisis.
Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates that treaties bear the force of law once ratified, making ECtHR rulings legally binding. Yet Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan considered the declaration that his government should act “in line with Turkey’s international obligations and domestic laws” to be grounds to threaten to expel the American ambassador.
The incident spurred discussion of the extent to which the rule of law has deteriorated in Turkey. It came just months after Erdogan’s government abandoned an international anti domestic violence treaty, in an effort to shore up support from fringe Islamist conservatives by punishing women and children. The U.S. criticized this decision, too, calling Turkey’s move “sudden and unwarranted” and a “disheartening step backward.”
But blatant rejections of treaties and court decisions are not the first time that the Turkish government has openly violated domestic law and international agreements to spite political adversaries.
In fact, the United States played an outsize role in enabling one of the longest-running and most egregious examples of this behavior: the treatment of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK who is seen as a leader and political representative by millions of Kurds worldwide.
Days after Öcalan was abducted in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 1999, U.S. officials admitted to the New York Times that they had played a central role in his capture. “We as a Government tried to figure out where he was, where he was going, and how we might bring him to justice,” a senior Clinton administration official told the paper.
Two years later, Antony Blinken – who served on Clinton’s National Security Council and is currently Secretary of State to U.S. President Joe Biden – told CNN Turk that “the United States was determined to bring Öcalan to justice. We provided all necessary assistance to Turkey. But we wanted him to have democratic rights, like everybody else. The judgement was carried out in an open and fair manner.”
What followed Öcalan’s capture, however, was neither just, nor democratic, nor open, nor fair at all.
Öcalan was charged with “separatism” and “treason” and, for that, was initially sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2002, when Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its EU accession efforts.
His trial was universally decried as unfair. In 1999, Amnesty International found that “the trial against Abdullah Öcalan violated both national law and international standards” and called for a complete impartial and independent retrial. A 2005 ECtHR decision ruled that his trial was not independent or impartial, that he was not promptly brought before a judge, and that his defense was not given enough time to prepare.
Öcalan’s defense lawyers have faced death threats and prison time simply for doing their jobs. They were attacked during the trial when they suggested that the families of Kurdish guerrillas be allowed to speak.
Between 2005 and 2012, more than 100 criminal cases were opened against lawyers who had represented Öcalan. One 2011 investigation targeted 36 of his lawyers at the same time, accusing them of “membership in an illegal organization” and “being executives of an illegal organization” on the basis of “evidence” that included their communications with their client.
Today, the situation is little better. For eight years, between July 27, 2011 until May 6, 2019, Öcalan was prohibited from meeting with his legal team at all. More than 800 meeting requests were made and denied during that period.
His most recent meeting with his lawyers took place on August 7, 2019. Since then, dozens of meeting requests have once again been denied. As of this week, Öcalan’s last contact with the outside world was a short phone call with his brother in March of last year.
A 2018 report from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which is affiliated with the Council of Europe, said that it “cannot give credence” to the justifications used by Turkish authorities to deny legal and family visits and that the restrictions on his legal visits “were being applied without any legal basis in Turkish law.”
In the same report, the Committee called on Turkish authorities “to take the necessary steps – without any further delay – to ensure that all prisoners at Imralı Prison are able, if they so wish, to receive visits from their relatives and lawyers.”
Öcalan’s lawyers still face prosecution. Recent charges against seven lawyers bizarrely cite statements of the objective facts of his case – “isolation is being applied to Öcalan” and “lawyers have not been allowed to see him for 300 days”- as evidence of terrorist activity.
Politicians and activists who have condemned these conditions and taken peaceful action to protest them have also faced spurious terror charges. These include many members and supporters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – which now faces closure because of its insistence on a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict and participation in peace negotiations that included talks with Öcalan.
If Turkey today is a state whose leaders are so invested in taking down political enemies real and imagined that they are willing to abandon all pretense of respect for domestic and international law, the trial and imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan show precisely how this approach was developed.
Like other examples of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey, measures once taken exclusively as part of the state’s attempts to crush Kurdish resistance are now being applied to other perceived threats.
As such, by supporting Turkey in capturing Öcalan and expressing no opposition to his treatment in the 23 years that have passed since, the United States has both harmed efforts for a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish conflict and given its endorsement to the same politicized disdain for the rule of law in Turkey that it now claims to criticize.
Meghan Bodette is an independent researcher in Washington DC. She focuses on Turkey, Syria and Kurdish affairs with a particular focus on women’s rights. Her works have been published by the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, the National Interest, Newlines Institute, and North Press Agency. She can be followed on Twitter @_____mjb