Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish people, is under a harsh state of aggravated isolation, having been granted only two visits since April 2015. Öcalan has been imprisoned in the F-type high-security prison on İmralı Island in the Marmara Sea, Turkey, since 1999, when he was abducted in a clandestine NATO operation involving the intelligence agencies of Turkey, Israel, and the United States.

Abdullah Öcalan has not been allowed access to or communication with a lawyer since 2011 and is forbidden from contacting the outside world in any way. This condition of aggravated isolation violates not only international law and the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey is obliged to follow as a member of the Council of Europe, but also Turkey’s own constitution and legal code.

The situation is critical

The situation regarding Öcalan is now at a critical point. There are currently more than 330 people in Turkey and around the world on indefinite hunger strike demanding that Turkey end the isolation imposed on Abdullah Öcalan. The hunger strikes were started by Leyla Güven, an MP from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), on 7 November 2018, while she was in prison for publicly criticizing the Turkish state’s invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria. Since Güven declared her hunger strike, more than 315 other political prisoners across Turkey, as well as Kurdish politicians, activists, and academics in Strasbourg, Hewler, Wales, and Toronto, have followed her in declaring an indefinite hunger strike. Many of the hunger strikers are in critical condition, but they are refusing medical treatment until the isolation is ended.

Prospects for peace

The role of Öcalan in the peace process cannot be overstated. Throughout the conflict, Öcalan has been the clearest and consistent voice calling for peace; he is responsible for numerous unilateral ceasefires in attempts to begin peace negotiations and realize a democratic resolution of the Kurdish question. He is the author of a unique political philosophy for a social organization called “democratic confederalism,” based on the principles of grass-roots democracy in the form of community-organized assemblies, women’s freedom, ecology, and multiculturalism. Democratic confederalism serves as the foundation for a number of social projects in the region, most notably for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), more commonly known as Rojava. Öcalan has also drafted a detailed roadmap for negotiations towards a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question and the democratization of states in the Middle East. This roadmap served as the foundation for the most recent series of talks to begin peace negotiations that took place from 2013 to 2015 on İmralı Island between Öcalan and representatives from the Turkish government, the HDP, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The delegation

In the midst of this situation, the international peace delegation to İmralı was organized by the international initiative “Freedom for Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan,” with support from the Freedom for Öcalan campaign and a trade union group (UK), comprising politicians, academics, trade unionists, and public figures. The members of the delegation are as follows:

Ögmundur Jónasson – Former Minister of Justice, Minister of the Interior in Iceland; former member of the Icelandic Parliament; former trade union leader; former foreign news editor for Icelandic State TV
Manuel Cortes – General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) trade union (UK)
Beverly Keene – Coordinator of Dialogue 2000 – Jubilee South (Argentina); teaches Economic and Social Rights at the National University of Buenos Aires
Paul Scholey – Partner at Morrish Solicitors LLP, the leading trade union law firm in the UK
Maxine Peake – Actor, director, and playwright; Vice-President of The Marx Memorial Library, London
Tony Burke – Assistant General Secretary, Unite the Union (UK and Ireland)
Connor Hayes – Student of Philosophy (UK)
John Hunt – writer, editor (UK); long-time international election observer
Jon Spaull – filmmaker, photographer (UK)

The delegation visited Turkey from 11 to 16 February, with the intent of visiting Abdullah Öcalan to try to break the isolation. The delegation wrote to the Minister of Justice of Turkey from the office of Ögmundur Jónasson asking to visit Öcalan on İmralı Island. The delegation also requested a meeting with the Justice Minister in order to express concern regarding the condition of the hunger strikers and the worsening human rights situation in Turkey. The delegation never received a response to this letter.

However, the delegation was able to meet with Leyla Güven, then on her 98th day of hunger strike, in her home in Diyarbakir, where she has been since being released from prison on 25 January 2019. Ms Güven told the delegation that her hunger strike is not an attempt at suicide, but rather an expression of her deep love for life. The hope of the hunger strikers is that ending Öcalan’s isolation will function as the first step in restarting talks for peace negotiations.

Human rights violations

The delegation also met with numerous MPs from the HDP, including the HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan, representatives from human rights organizations, trade unions, the BAR association, the Kurdish freedom movement, and the Peace Mothers organization. Together these individuals painted a consistent picture; during the time of the talks for peace negotiations, there was an atmosphere of democracy and free expression in Turkey. When talks broke down following the elections in June 2015, the atmosphere shifted noticeably, as aggravated isolation was re-imposed on Öcalan, and the sate cracked down on the opposition, raiding offices, imprisoning leaders, assaulting protesters and imposing around-the-clock curfews on cities in the Kurdistan region of south-eastern Turkey. Since the breakdown of talks, tensions have again begun to rise in the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish forces, with the government reporting that more than 2,000 people have died as a result of the conflict since 2015.

Numerous human rights atrocities have been committed during this time. For instance, in Cizre, 160 people were killed during a 78-day curfew from 14 December 2015 to 2 March 2016, and more than 100 people were shot by Turkish security forces as they sought shelter in the basements of three different buildings, and the buildings were burned to destroy evidence. In Sur, a district in the city of Diyarbakir, the Turkish state conducted a 17-month-long military operation, sending attack helicopters, tanks, and heavy artillery into the city centre, killing hundreds of people. Some members of the delegation had the opportunity to walk through Sur and witnessed the devastation that belongs only in a war-zone. In a March 2018 session of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) on Turkey and the Kurds, the PPT found both President Erdoğan and the commander of those operations General Adem Huduti to be guilty of war crimes for these atrocities. Many individuals the delegation spoke with stressed that the state’s treatment of Öcalan reflects its treatment of Kurds and the opposition in general. The aggravated isolation imposed on Öcalan is an aspect of the broader policy of social isolation, where the government uses the rhetoric of the war on terror to eliminate all dissenting voices.

State of emergency

This situation was exacerbated drastically following the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, when the government declared a state of emergency in Turkey, effectively spreading the security policy it had already implemented in the Kurdistan region throughout Turkey. Under the state of emergency, the Turkish state passed a number of so-called “decree laws,” which allow the state to bypass existing judicial and legislative mechanisms in order to combat ‘terror’.

Under the state of emergency, there were mass layoffs in the public sector, including more than 131,000 state employees, 40,000 police officers, and 4,500 members of the judiciary. Numerous civic and political organizations have been forced to shut down and had their leaders imprisoned. Members of the media who cover the opposition are imprisoned. The government forced 96 of 102 democratically elected HDP officials to step down, arresting more than 60 of them and filled their positions with trustees appointed by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Municipal elections will be held on 31 March 2019, and Erdoğan has declared that he will again remove any elected HDP politician from their position. The government also suspended parliamentary immunity and imprisoned numerous former and sitting MPs, mostly from the HDP, including the former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş. Consequently, there are currently 260,000 people imprisoned in Turkey, when the capacity of prisons is only 200,000-220,000, and another 500,000 are on parole and under a travel ban. The justification used in all instances has been “affiliation to terrorism.”

Urgent call

In July 2018, the Turkish government lifted the state of emergency. However, as human rights organizations told the delegation, the situation in Turkey is getting worse, because the decree laws passed during the state of emergency have institutionalized the emergency law into Turkey’s legal code. There is no longer any rule of law in Turkey, and this has been confirmed by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, who declared that the Turkish judiciary no longer functions independently from the Erdoğan regime. Numerous attempts have been made to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), though often these applications are rejected, or do not receive a positive ruling. In the case of the massacres in Cizre, the ECHR dismissed the application, deciding that the means for legal regress within Turkey had not been sufficiently exhausted. In rare cases where the ECHR does rule against Turkey, such as in the case where they found the detention of Selahattin Demirtaş to be unlawful and ordered his release, these decisions are ignored by the Turkish state. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has made a total of 7 visits to İmralı Island since Öcalan’s abduction, and few of their recommendations have been implemented. Further, the CPT is not allowed to publish their findings without permission from the state in question. The CPT has the capability to visit any prison in the world at any time, yet refuses to adequately exercise this right in the case of İmralı.

The situation in Turkey represents a failure of international human rights mechanisms, and the silence of Western states is unacceptable, as they continue to maintain close military and economic ties with Turkey. In January 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution expressing concern over the condition of the hunger strikes and the worsening human rights situation in Turkey, inviting Turkey to implement the findings of the CPT concerning the isolation of Öcalan and to authorize the immediate publication of CPT reports. The PACE resolution is a step in the right direction, but it is far from sufficient.

The situation in Turkey is urgent; numerous individuals told the delegation that if the isolation of Öcalan is not ended and hunger strikers begin to die, there will be mass uprisings across Turkey. What is needed is immediate pressure applied on the Turkish government by Western states and international mechanisms to end the isolation of Öcalan and restart the peace process, before the situation in Turkey violently escalates out of control.

This briefing was written by Connor Hayes who was also a member of this delegation.

More information

International Initiative “Freedom for Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan”

Permanent People’s Tribunal ruling

Venice Commission opinions on Turkey

2016 CPT report on İmralı

2019 PACE Resolution on Turkey

Summary of Öcalan’s roadmap to the negotiations

Report of the 2017 İmralı Peace Delegation