Originally published: https://medyanews.net/former-cpt-chair-calls-for-end-to-isolation-of-abdullah-ocalan/

Marc Neve, ex-Chair of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), highlights the critical need for CPT intervention in Abdullah Öcalan’s prolonged isolation in İmralı Prison, underscoring the urgency for a renewed visit and transparent reporting.

31 January 2024 | Medya News

Marc Neve, the former Chair of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), has raised significant concerns over the ongoing isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in a recent interview with Serkan Demirel of Meyda Haber TV.

Neve, a specialist in criminal and human rights law and a former lawyer at the International Criminal Court (ICC), is currently the President of the Belgian Penitentiary Institutions.

Neve called for the CPT to urgently visit İmralı to reassess and report on the conditions faced by Öcalan who has been held under severe isolation conditions for almost 25 years in İmralı Island Prison, Turkey, with no contact with the outside world for the past three years.

Neve described İmralı as inherently an isolation centre, with Öcalan’s long-term imprisonment being unacceptable. He stressed the necessity for political dialogue over repression and isolation, highlighting the concerning silence from the CPT regarding Öcalan’s situation.

The global campaign initiated on 10 October 2023, advocating for “Freedom for Öcalan for a political solution to the Kurdish question”, underscores the pressing need for the CPT’s action, given its unique authority to access İmralı.

The former CPT chair recounted the challenging logistics of visiting İmralı, mainly due to its location and reliance on military helicopters for access, further compounding the isolation. Neve shared insights from his visits, noting Öcalan’s intense need to communicate, even to the extent of conversing with birds, due to the lack of human interaction.

Addressing the broader implications, Neve drew parallels with historical figures like Nelson Mandela, suggesting that international bodies like the United Nations and the Council of Europe could play a vital role in facilitating a political solution. He emphasised the indispensability of a movement behind Öcalan to ensure a successful political resolution, reflecting on the enduring mobilisation and support for Öcalan’s freedom as a powerful force.

Neve’s call for the CPT to revisit İmralı and the subsequent publication of their findings is a critical step towards addressing the contentious issue of Öcalan’s isolation, which remains a focal point in discussions on human rights and the Kurdish issue.

Here is the English translation of the interview:

Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in our programme. You are currently the President of the Belgian Penitentiary Institutions. You are a lawyer specialised in criminal and human rights law. You have served as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court (ICC). You have also been a member and chairman of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) for many years. As a member and President of the CPT, you have visited İmralı Prison, where Kurdish people’s leader Abdullah Öcalan is being held, on several occasions and held meetings with Öcalan. I would like to start with your impressions during these visits. Could you tell us a little about this process?

Although many years have passed, I cannot forget my visits to İmralı. Visiting a prisoner held alone in a prison is in itself a very exceptional and extraordinary experience. Within the CPT, we had to discuss at length the decision to visit a single prisoner. At that time, the CPT had to deal with prisons in 47 countries. Although it seemed absolutely necessary to visit a prisoner held alone on an island prison, we had to expend a lot of energy to realise such a visit.

When I went to see Öcalan for the first time, some of my colleagues in the delegation had visited him before. So for the first time, I was part of the CPT delegation that visited İmralı for the second time. Öcalan had been in solitary confinement for some time, in isolation, with no real contact with the outside world. When we met him at that time, he was very restless.

Can you tell us a little bit about the prison, for example, its structure?

İmralı is a small island in the Marmara Sea. It was originally used exclusively as a military base and prison, making it an island with a controversial history. The military base here is particularly important because the prisoner held in İmralı, while supposed to be under Turkish political authority, is ultimately held in the custody of the military. This creates an exceptional context requiring the use of Turkish military helicopters to access the island. It is almost impossible to reach the island by boat or dinghy due to the high waves, which are also often used as an excuse to restrict access to the island. During our visits, we always used military helicopters to reach İmralı.

The first time we met Öcalan, he was alone and in isolation. I remember the first meeting very well; I had 3 meetings with him. In every meeting, Öcalan always wanted to talk because he felt a great need to talk and share because of the isolation he was living in. He was always talking in a cycle to express many things that he had been keeping inside for a long time.

What was Öcalan’s attitude towards the CPT delegation?

His way of expressing himself, his desire to always speak himself because of his need, was the first characteristic that stood out. He told me that he talked to the little birds in the courtyard. He was really trying to communicate with those birds. Therefore, our visits to İmralı were, above all, an opportunity for Öcalan to communicate with the outside world. Given his deprivation of any kind of communication, the desire to talk all the time is understandable and important.

Was he talking about politics?

He had a lot to say, but his own situation was not at the center of his words and concerns. This was his most characteristic feature. I mean, he talked very little about his personal situation; he usually talked about the general situation. He wanted to go beyond his individual situation and talk more about the general situation and the political situation. Because he realised that he himself was a prisoner in a very specific and political context.

Öcalan has been imprisoned in İmralı for 25 years. It can’t be easy to spend 25 years in such a prison, can it?

No, it is certainly not easy. Let me say frankly, initially I and my colleagues thought that we were going to put an end to the isolation on this island, so we believed that the Turkish authorities would probably transfer Öcalan to another facility on land. But that did not happen. After a certain period of time, we saw or ensured that the prison was enlarged and several other prisoners were brought there. But initially, we had envisaged that Öcalan would be transferred to an onshore prison. However, this did not materialise. Unfortunately, the CPT was unable to intervene in this matter. The only thing we emphasised was that isolating a person and keeping him on an island, even if there are other prisoners in the same prison, poses major infrastructural problems for getting staff, families, and visitors there under normal circumstances. That is the biggest fundamental problem in this situation.

Everything aside, are you saying that İmralı is not suitable for a prison?

Yes, this is a very clear situation. That is why we initially thought and requested that Öcalan should be transferred to a place on land. The Turkish authorities did not want to do this.

The conditions in İmralı have not changed much in the past 25 years. There has been no news from Öcalan for the last 33 months. Öcalan is under isolation as a whole. No news can be received from him. His right to see his family and lawyers has been completely taken away. How do you evaluate these isolation conditions Öcalan is in?

On the one hand, as you say, there are conditions of isolation. Obviously, I have not followed developments as closely as you have, I have not followed them closely for many years, but there is no doubt that this continuous isolation is an important issue that has become and continues to become increasingly difficult. Especially with regard to the length of detention, the case law of the European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that isolation and prolonged imprisonment must have a meaning. Does it still make sense to keep him in prison for so many years? This is an issue raised by the European Court of Human Rights in relation to very long periods of detention. This applies not only to Mr. Öcalan but also to a number of other prisoners in Turkey and elsewhere. In the case of Öcalan, whose symbolic importance as a prisoner is undeniable, the length and continuity of his detention is an undeniable problem. This is a very clear situation.

Can we say that this isolation is also a method of torture?

The longer the isolation lasts, the more it is considered degrading to human dignity. Such prolonged degrading treatment can certainly be likened and compared to torture.

The CPT is the only body authorised to enter İmralı. The CPT last visited İmralı in September 2022. Despite all the demands of the Kurds due to the time that has passed and the lack of any news from Öcalan, it still has not released its İmralı report. How do you evaluate the CPT’s attitude and role in İmralı?

The role of the CPT is indispensable but also difficult. Indispensable because Öcalan’s situation needs to be monitored from the outside. Fortunately, we can go there. Öcalan is someone who has extremely important things to convey to the outside world. Therefore, but it continues to be difficult for both Öcalan himself and his lawyers and relatives who want to know the results of the visit, which is what we have observed.

What I understand from what you said is that the last visit took place in 2022, and the report has not yet been published. It is a worrying situation because the silence of the CPT jeopardises some integration. Does the CPT have to publish its report on its last visit?

The convention to which the CPT is obliged to adhere is a special convention. When this convention was drafted in 1984, a long time ago, its aim was to make it possible to go anywhere without authorisation, thus ensuring free access to all places of detention. In return, it recognised that its report could only be published with the consent of states. Even in Belgium, we face these problems. The CPT’s report on Belgium is not automatically published. In the CPT’s last report on Belgium, we had to wait more than two years for the report to be published because Belgium was delaying finalising its response.

Shouldn’t this approach be different in Öcalan’s case?

Öcalan’s situation is slightly different in terms of visits, which are much more targeted. CPT visits to İmralı do not last long, of course. CPT visits can sometimes last 10 or 15 days, but this is not the case for Öcalan. The visits to İmralı are more targeted visits; in other words, we know exactly which interviews will take place and which visits will take place in the field. As a result, the preparation of the report is also faster in this case. However, it is also important that the authorities respond as quickly as possible.

What is the role of the Council of Europe in Öcalan’s detention conditions?

I think that the Council of Europe can also use the CPT’s İmralı reports. The CPT is an organ of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a large organisation consisting of the CPT, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Court of Human Rights. All bodies are based in Strasbourg and work in close cooperation. The CPT is a field organ of the Council. The Court does not go into the field; it is the CPT that goes into the field. In this sense, the work of the CPT feeds, for example, the work of the Court, but also the actions of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which can take a position based on the reports submitted by the CPT.

Öcalan’s lawyers and many human rights defenders have stated in their statements that the CPT’s position on İmralı is political. Do you think that the CPT’s position towards İmralı and Öcalan is political?

The CPT is a strictly political body. We are appointed by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. We are, therefore, definitely a political body.

Can we then say that there is political pressure on the CPT in Öcalan’s case?

At the level of the Council of Europe, there are a number of actors facilitating or complicating the work of bodies such as the CPT. This is very clear.

Shouldn’t the CPT, by virtue of its organisation, respect many human rights considerations?

Yes. As a former member of the CPT, I have not felt much pressure from outside. What we do feel are the complaints we receive, especially from lawyers and family members, and we take these into account. It is very clear that the Council of Europe should provide the necessary resources to organise and increase the number of CPT visits. This is certainly a justified request. From the outside, it seems that the CPT is not moving fast enough and that it should visit more often. This is an undeniable fact.

Do you think that Turkey violates treaties based on human rights in the case of İmralı and Öcalan?

The European Court of Human Rights had ruled on violations due to Öcalan’s detention conditions in various periods. It had convicted Turkey in certain cases. In these judgments, the ECHR had taken our reports as the basis.

What can be done to change Öcalan’s conditions and end his isolation?

It must be ensured that the CPT returns to İmralı and carries out a new visit. And the reports that will be released in due course, if they are clear enough to condemn the isolation, should be made available to external actors.

The CPT cannot publish its report without Turkey’s response, can it?

No, this is not possible according to the conventions, unless there is an agreement between the CPT and Turkey to publish the reports automatically when they are completed. There are such agreements with some countries. But many countries do not accept such agreements. There is no such agreement with Belgium either. As I said before, it took two years for Belgium’s last report to be published. Many organisations were waiting for Belgium’s response, and the government was delaying its completion. It was only when the Belgian response was ready that we were able to access the CPT report. The same situation seems to be happening now in Turkey.

Can the Council of Europe put political pressure on the Turkish authorities to respond to the CPT’s İmralı report?

If desired, this can happen. The CPT has at its disposal a tool called a public statement, which it can use at a given moment. Public statements have already been made against some states, notably Turkey.

Do you think that the isolation of Öcalan and the war against the Kurdish people are connected?

Yes, absolutely. Again, it is clear that there is a link between Öcalan’s role as the leader and representative of the PKK and the conditions of detention he still faces today.

What would you like to say about Öcalan’s role and thoughts on the solution of the Kurdish question?

We were there before the period when there were discussions for peace talks. Afterward, the talks started openly. At that time Turkey was also a strong candidate to join the European Union. So our İmralı reports may have influenced the attitude of the Turkish authorities in the right direction at that time. Then the whole process collapsed because Turkey turned its back on the European Union and the European Union turned its back on Turkey. Negotiations with the PKK came to an end.

As you know, South African leader Nelson Mandela regained his freedom after 27 years of imprisonment. The international community played an important role in Mandela’s road to freedom. Can the same international community also play a role in the liberation of Öcalan?

Yes, absolutely, because in the case of a symbolic prisoner like him, it is clear that a political solution is the only valid and important way out. It is the only way out, but still, the conditions and the circumstances have to be right for the discussion. You made a comparison with South Africa. In South Africa, at one point, the then head of government, Mr. Klerk, agreed to talks and a solution. He agreed to discuss the solution. This is not the case in Turkey.

Your colleague Mauro Palma, former President of the CPT, has said that the Öcalan issue is a political issue and that the solution should also be political. Do you agree with this?

Yes, absolutely. I think the conditions he is in today and the prison conditions make this more obvious. I mean, no other prisoner is subjected to the conditions Öcalan is subjected to and Öcalan is the only one who has been subjected to these conditions for so long. If this situation has been going on for so long, it is because Öcalan continues to be a political focal point.

A global campaign demanding “Freedom for Öcalan and a political solution to the Kurdish question” was launched with a joint statement in 74 centres around the world on 10 October 2023 by some of the world’s most prominent figures. What would you like to say about this campaign?

I believe that such a campaign should be carried out because, as I have just said and as other colleagues have also stated, it is clear that a political solution to the Öcalan issue is possible and important.

Do you personally think that Öcalan should be free?

As I said before, the European Court of Human Rights says that indefinite detention is not a solution. The Court has clearly stated that a solution must be found in such a situation. In this sense, it is clear that a solution is needed in Öcalan’s case. Long indefinite and indefinite detention is unacceptable.

Öcalan, who is undoubtedly regarded as the leader of the more than 40 million Kurdish people, is now imprisoned in a country ruled by Mr Erdoğan in what is described by many as a dictatorial regime. How should this situation be assessed in relation to the regime in Turkey?

I know more about the situation in Turkey through my visits to Turkey as a member of the CPT. I have traveled to Turkey many times and have observed the prison system closely. It is clear that there have been positive developments in the prison system. When I say positive developments, I mean improvements in prison conditions, but there are also some negative aspects. The number of people arrested for thought crimes is increasing day by day. This development has reached an alarming level.

Do you have a message for Öcalan’s freedom?

I believe that the solution lies not in repression but in political dialogue. A solution should be developed within the framework of a political dialogue. The CPT is an organ of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe can contribute to such a solution.

Perhaps this is where the problem lies. For some unknown reason, despite all the demands of the Kurds, the Council of Europe does not take action against the isolation conditions in which Öcalan finds himself and is silent. This silence of the Council of Europe is really incomprehensible? Don’t you think so?

I think it would be important to create a synergy at the level of international organisations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe towards a solution over a period of time. When international organisations are ready to intervene one after the other, this approach could create a positive dynamic that could lead to a political solution.

In this sense, Turkey still wants Öcalan to be seen as a ‘terrorist’. How should the concept of terrorism be defined?

It is necessary to look at history. You mentioned Nelson Mandela. The ANC movement, of which Mandela was the leader, was also seen as a terrorist movement at that time. But nobody remembers that now. We have forgotten because history forgets these things. Independence movements are often initially recognised by some as a terrorist movement and considered to be worrying. But these definitions can change over time in the political arena.

What impressed you the most during your talks with Öcalan?

What impressed me the most during our meetings was that Öcalan did not talk much about the conditions of his imprisonment. He talked mainly about the Kurdish people and the movement he represented, which was the reason for his imprisonment, and diverted the discussion to this area. This attitude was quite impressive because usually, a prisoner starts by talking about his own difficulties and daily life before complaining about the political situation in general. In our meetings with Öcalan, the opposite was the case. This attitude and approach were also very important for us.

Mr President, we have come to the end of our programme. Is there anything you would like to add?

I think another thing that is very impressive is the mobilisation that has been going on for such a long time. This is an extraordinary power. I am very impressed by this mobilisation.

Are you talking about the mobilisation for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan? Do you think that demands and actions for Öcalan’s freedom should continue?

Yes, since I believe that the solution is political, it is indispensable that there is a movement behind Öcalan. If there is no movement behind him, the chances of a successful political solution are much lower.

Mr. President, thank you very much for being a guest on our programme.