23 years of isolation: an interview with Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyer

Parade at Durham Miners Gala Celebrating Freedom for Ocalan Campaign
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February 15 2022 will mark the 23rd anniversary of the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, the co-founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

The PKK has fought for Kurdish freedom and autonomy since the 1970s. Turkey has defined the PKK as a ‘terrorist group’, and most Western states have followed suit, as they see Turkey as a key trading partner and NATO member.

Öcalan was abducted by the Turkish state from Nairobi in 1999. He’d been forced to leave Syria – previously a PKK safe haven – the year before. The events leading up to Öcalan‘s capture have been dubbed an ‘international conspiracy’ by the Kurdish Freedom Movement.

Öcalan was originally sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because Turkey was in the midst of a bid to join the EU, and it needed to be seen to comply with EU laws. 

He has spent the last 23 years in isolation on the Turkish prison island of İmralı. International human rights bodies have repeatedly called for an end to his solitary confinement.

Despite being in solitary confinement, Öcalan has still been able to put across his ideas for a new society, as part of his legal defence writings. His ‘new paradigm’ – of a stateless direct democracy based on women’s freedom and an ecologically sustainable society – has inspired both the Rojava revolution in Northeast Syria, and the movement for democratic autonomy in Bakur (the part of Kurdistan that lies within Turkey’s borders).

Taking to the streets

A demonstration is planned in London on Sunday 13 February, calling for Öcalan‘s freedom. The Kurdish People’s Assembly of the UK tweeted:

Read on...

Supporters of the Kurdish Freedom Movement are also taking part in a “long march” across Europe to Strasbourg, calling for “Freedom for Öcalan”. Strasbourg houses the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe.

“We cannot get any news from Mr Öcalan

Last December, I travelled to Istanbul and interviewed Ibrahim Bilmez for The Canary.

I was on the way to join a delegation to Bakur made up of radical journalists, including three of us from The Canary, as well as representatives from the Kurdistan Solidarity Network and defendant and prisoner solidarity organisations.

Bilmez has been Öcalan‘s lawyer for over 18 years. He told me:

the most important thing on the agenda for us at the moment is that we cannot get any news from Mr Öcalan. That’s been going on now for eight months.

Bilmez told me that he was concerned about his client’s deteriorating health. According to Bilmez:

So eight months ago, news came on social media from verifiable sources saying that Öcalan‘s health was very bad, and that he could be close to losing his life. That was last March [2021]. And at that point they gave permission for his family to speak with him on the phone.

No visits since 2020

Bilmez said that Öcalan has not had a visit from friends, family, or his supporters since 3 March 2020, and that even these visits had only been achieved by popular pressure. In the period immediately preceding the 2020 visit, there was a forest fire which had spread to the İmralı prison. Kurdish people in Turkey took to the streets and demanded proof that Öcalan and his fellow prisoners were still alive, and this eventually led to the state authorising the visit.

The hunger strikes broke the isolation

Öcalan‘s lawyers have not been able to visit him since August 2019. Again, those legal visits only came about because of the determination of the Kurdish movement. In 2018, thousands of Kurdish prisoners launched a wave of hunger strikes, demanding the end of Öcalan‘s isolation. According to Bilmez:

The reason that it was possible for the lawyers to actually visit in 2019 was because of the hunger strikes that happened in the prisons, by Leyla Güven from the [People’s Democratic Party] HDP and other prisoners. And that was what put the pressure on, so that lawyers would come and visit.

Leyla Güven‘s successful hunger strike lasted 200 days and almost led to her death. Last year, the state took revenge on her, sentencing her to a further 22 years in prison.

Bilmez said that between 2011 and 2019, there had been no lawyer visits permitted at all. Öcalan has not been allowed any legal visits since 2019 either

Bilmez told me that there had been another hunger strike in Summer 2021, aimed at breaking the isolation of Öcalan, but that a decision had been made early on to quit the strike. This was because – back in 2019 – Öcalan himself said that he couldn’t endorse hunger strikes as a strategy, and called on the movement to find different ways to change things.

“No law applies”

I asked Bilmez what the conditions were like for Öcalan in prison. He said:

he was taken there in 1999, and until 2009 he was the only prisoner in that prison. After 2009, five other prisoners from the Kurdish movement were taken there as well, but they are in separate cells.

Now there are only four people left there [including Öcalan].

Bilmez said that the Turkish state is acting with complete impunity in Öcalan‘s case:

The government has done whatever it wants with him since 1999. No law applies, there’s no transparency there.

My comments might not come across as objective but – as a lawyer – I can say that it’s the case, and this is backed up by the report of the [Council of Europe’s] Committee for the Prevention of Torture. They visited İmralı eight or nine times, and that’s the basis of their report.

Imprisonment of Öcalan‘s lawyers

I asked Bilmez if he had faced criminalisation himself for representing Öcalan. He told me:

In November 2011, there was the biggest ever operation against lawyers in Turkey. Over 40 lawyers [who were connected to representing Öcalan] were arrested and had their houses raided in the middle of the night. They arrested lawyers from [the cities of] Diyarbakir, Ankara, Izmir and Wan, and took them to Istanbul.

35 of us were put into prison, including myself.

I was in prison from 2011-14. Now I have been released – with conditions – but the case against me is still ongoing.

The alleged crime was simply that we were lawyers for Öcalan. They allege that we’re a tool, a vehicle for his ideas and his organisation.

Bilmez said that – on the way to İmralı – he had been physically attacked by Turkish fascist groups, and that on one occasion:

a group of 50 or 60 fascists came to attack us with stones and sticks. The police were forced to protect us in some way, but they didn’t really put much effort into it.

Bilmez considers it likely that that these attacks were done in coordination with the Turkish state.

The importance of international solidarity

I asked Bilmez if there was anything that people from the UK could do to pressure the Turkish government over Öcalan‘s situation. He told us that it was important to focus on the cases being taken outside Turkey:

We have cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

These international cases are very important. We’re constantly trying to open cases, or keep cases going – but still Öcalan‘s conditions stay the same. So it is very important to keep up the international pressure and awareness, and to raise your voice.

Bilmez gave examples of how international solidarity makes a difference. He pointed out:

One of the big unions in the UK, which has 1000s of members, specifically mentioned Abdullah Öcalan at one of their big protests, to see this from here was very meaningful and very important.

Another example was that there was a boat full of activists who went from Athens to Napoli raising awareness about Öcalan‘s right not to be isolated. And that was done on the same day as when he had been taken captive in 1999.

These kinds of events are really important. In Turkey the law basically doesn’t mean anything in these political cases, and there’s no independent media here either. So that’s why international political pressure is so important.

A template for further violations

According to Bilmez, the isolation of Öcalan has provided a template for many of the abuses which are now being carried out by the Turkish state. He said:

The kind of violations that have happened in İmralı, and with the wider Kurdish question – these have become the template for Turkey. This injustice that was acceptable in those spaces is now the norm in Turkey.

This first happened in İmralı, and nobody raised their voice. So it has become the standard in Turkey. That the law is there to be bent.

Its time for Freedom for Öcalan

The Kurdish Freedom Movement is calling for an end to the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan as an urgent step. But, more than that, they want an end to his imprisonment. This is seen as a stepping stone to ending the oppression of Kurdish people, and to a radical democratisation of society.

According to Ayşe Acar Başaran, spokesperson of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Women’s Assembly:

The years-long isolation of Mr Öcalan is a manifestation of the government’s approach to the Kurdish issue. The government has dropped the democratic solution to the Kurdish problem following its alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP since 2015.

The HDP are part of the movement for radical democracy in Turkey, inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan

According to the Women Defend Rojava campaign:

we see that the imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan is not limited to him as a single person – but with him an entire people, an entire movement is being tried to punish and destroy. The imprisonment of his person is vicariously linked to the attempt to suppress an alternative to patriarchy, fascism and capitalist modernity.

10,000 people are currently imprisoned in Turkey for connection with the Kurdish Freedom Movement. In 2016, Turkey was listed as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, and they are still being jailed in large numbers. During our time in Turkey and Bakur, we spoke to many people facing prison for their political organising, as well as many families of prisoners. Emily Apple wrote in The Canary about just how wide ranging the repression is:

Everyone is charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation”. But these are not terrorists. These are lawyers, journalists, MPs, co-op members, and human rights activists. Their crime is being Kurdish and supporting radical democracy in the face of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fascistic regime.

A lot of the people we spoke to told us how important Öcalan‘s freedom was to them, that freedom for Öcalan would also mean freedom for them and their loved ones. Öcalan is widely seen as the key to restarting peace negotiations with the Turkish state.

Even after 23 years of extreme isolation – and all of the efforts of the Turkish state to silence him – Öcalan still inspires revolutionaries not just across Turkey and Kurdistan but worldwide. It’s clear that the movement will continue fighting for his freedom, and for the stateless, radically democratic society that he envisioned.

Featured image is a screenshot from a video of a protest at the Durham Miners Gala

Get involved

  • Join the demonstration in London on February 13th
  • Read Abdullah Öcalan‘s work
  • Check out the International Initiative for the Freedom of Öcalan

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