When we tried to visit Ocalan
The Imrali Island prison, where Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been held in isolation for twenty-two years, accepts no visitors and the annual delegations never actually reach this island fortress. But the delegation’s visit to Turkey provides an opportunity for an international group to draw attention to the conditions faced by a political prisoner that many have called the Kurdish Mandela and find out about the state of human rights in Turkey more generally.
This pandemic year, the delegation couldn’t go to Turkey either. Instead, it conducted online discussions with Kurdish activists. Kurdish Glaswegian, Roza Salih, was one of this year’s delegates, and she has written her thoughts on the virtual visit to Bella Caledonia.
I was impressed by the people who were part of the delegation, many of whom have been long time campaigners for humanity and justice. I looked around, and I told myself we are not alone. That sense of hope liberates you.
But it is not surprising that Turkey can continue its brutal policies against the Kurds and ignore human rights. The silence of the international community is encouraging Erdogan to believe that he can get away with crimes against humanity.
We heard eye-witness testimonies and discovered how violence is used against politicians, journalists, women rights and human rights activists, trade unionists, and lawyers. Fundamentally, whoever speaks out against the government will be imprisoned or, worse, disappear.
It is clear from speaking with human rights groups that the situation in Turkey is deteriorating. On our second day of the delegation – 15 February, the date when, 22 years ago, Abdullah Ocalan was captured and imprisoned – 718 people were detained. Most were from the leftist, pro-Kurdish, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Turkey wants to silence the people who are speaking out for democracy. These arrests and attacks are a crime against democracy and freedom of speech. But the international community seems indifferent to the destruction of democracy in Turkey as they pursue their own economic interests.
The bravery of the people we talked to is astonishing. Daily, these individuals are risking their freedom in the cause of democracy. The international community need to step up their pressure on Turkey to restart the peace process.
As a leader recognised by millions of Kurds, Ocalan is willing to negotiate for a just and dignified future for the Kurds in Turkey if only the Turkish government would engage with negotiations from their side. What is the point of organisations such as the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights if they cannot do their jobs? Turkey has suppressed political and civil freedom. If they don’t act now, then when?
As I write, we approach International Women’s Day. As a Kurdish Refugee woman living in Scotland, I am inspired by the bravery of the Kurdish women in their struggle for equality. The co-chair system used by Kurdish movement organisations plays a key role in promoting gender equality. The women we spoke with were fighting two battles against fascism and patriarchy. The horrific incidents described to us by members of the Free Women’s Movement (JTA) are beyond the wildest imagination: women being used as war tools – raped and shamed – and suffering appalling domestic violence… Turkey must respect the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women.
Political prisoners have rights, like any other prisoners, but it seems that you lose your human rights once you are imprisoned in Turkey. No one can visit you, no one can represent you, and if they represent you, they might also face imprisonment. Many of Ocalan’s lawyers are imprisoned just for defending him in court or doing their job.
Lawyers from around the world should be encouraged to file appeals to international bodies about the situation and condemn the illegality of the isolation policy against Ocalan and Kurdish people’s treatment.
If there are no visitors, how would you know that the prisoner has not been tortured or deprived of food or medical needs? An independent medical service needs to be established for investigating prisoners’ conditions in Turkey, as it is clear that Turkey will not follow its own human rights laws.
Any state that believes in “one state, one nation and one language” endangers minority ethnicities. This is an ideology that Turkey has used to terrorise its own people and commit ethnic cleansing.
It is time for the international human rights bodies to apply real and sustained pressure to the Turkish state to end Ocalan’s isolation, which violates Turkish and international human rights law.
Members of Parliament and political parties need to ask questions about Turkey’s current situation and express support for renewing the peace process and ending Ocalan’s isolation. NGOs must speak out against human rights atrocities.
One of the organisations we spoke with was KESK, the confederation of public employees’ unions. They explained how workers’ rights were undermined and told us how the state is arresting their members and intimidating and criminalising workers. UK trade unions have protested this and have also campaigned for Ocalan’s freedom, but much more could be done to encourage grassroots involvement in these campaigns.
Solidarity campaigns are the most important tool we can use internationally to raise global awareness and positive change. We can establish ties with the Kurdish women’s movement and with trade unions and human rights groups. Every person who spreads the word about the situation in Turkey can make a difference.