Margaret Owen and Julie Ward report on the second annual Abdullah Öcalan Conference
Wednesday February 15th 2023 was the 24th anniversary of Turkey’s unlawful kidnapping of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan from the Greek embassy in Nairobi. Since 1999, he has been imprisoned in solitary confinement on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara in Turkey in conditions that violate international law and clearly constitute a form of torture.
For the last two years, his lawyers and family have been refused applications to visit him, breaching his rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ECHR and the Mandela Rules.
A meeting held in Westminster on this anniversary was planned to focus on Öcalan’s unique teachings, philosophy and ideas for transformational change to bring peace, freedom, justice, democracy and equality to all the people in the Middle East, not just for the Kurds but for all regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender or age.
The conference was organised by the trade union-backed Freedom for Öcalan campaign in collaboration with the Kurdish People’s Assembly and held under the patronage of Labour peer Maurice Glasman. The event was originally planned to take place in the House of Lords; however, at the last minute, it was disallowed by the Labour Party, and a hasty rearrangement to a nearby hotel was required.
Inevitably, due to the terrible earthquakes which had occurred nine days earlier, every speaker mourned the shocking loss of life and the destruction of towns and villages in Syria and Turkey, and especially the horrific plight of the Kurdish victims, their suffering magnified by the cynical politics of both President Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad that has blocked the delivery of aid to areas already suffering from 12 years of civil war.
The conference consisted of four sessions. The first posed the question ‘Who is Abdullah Öcalan, and why is his freedom crucial for a political solution?’ Clare Baker, international officer for Unite and secretary of the Freedom for Öcalan campaign, suggested Öcalan’s long detention by the Turkish authorities was specifically intended to stifle all his ideas for peace. Baker reiterated trade union support for the campaign to free Öcalan. She also highlighted the fact that Erdoğan has jailed many trade unionists, and she pledged Unite’s continuing presence at up and coming trials of arrested comrades. Meanwhile, Lord Glasman highlighted current geopolitical issues, such as the Russian war against Ukraine, which continues to occupy all the political space at a European and global level, Turkey’s stance on NATO expansion, and its positioning of itself as a possible peace broker.
Osman Baydemir, the former co-mayor of Diyabakır, exiled Kurdish politician and human rights activist, and lawyer Maaha Elahi both condemned the silence of the international community over Erdoğan’s crimes against humanity, war crimes and state-sponsored assassinations, his abandonment of the rule of law and an independent judiciary, his imprisonment of political figures, activists, lawyers, journalists, academics and other critical voices, his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, and his extreme racism and misogynistic targeting of women.
Baydemir described the Kurds of Turkey as “victims of lawlessness” as Turkey violates basic human rights and humanitarian laws such as the UDHR and the ECHR. He spoke of the horrendous physical, sexual and psychological torture of the huge numbers of political prisoners, many in solitary confinement, mirroring the torture of Öcalan in solitary confinement in Imrali. He questioned the lack of a report from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) that visited the prison in September last year; it remains to this day unknown if the CPT actually met the Kurdish leader.
Former Labour MEP Julie Ward (who has led two Imrali delegations) moderated the second session, ‘Democratic Confederalism: a way forward for peaceful co-existence’. Speakers included Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard; Zainab Murad Sahrab, co-chair of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK); the erudite Hişyar Özsoy, the HDP’s foreign affairs co-spokesperson, who joined via Zoom from Diyarbakır; and Dr Abdulkarim Omar, representative of the AANS (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) to Europe. They described their encounters with the essential essence of Öcalan’s “social contract” and how “democratic confederalism” actually operates at all levels of society, vertically and horizontally, with gender equality as a central pillar along with women’s empowerment, pluralism, localism and ecology.
The system of co-chairs and the engagement of people from all sections of society in the AANS, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, or language, demonstrates a respect for diversity and co-existence between all peoples.
We heard first hand from Özsoy about the impact of the AKP’s corruption on earthquake victims in Turkey. A tax imposed following the 1999 earthquake, in which 17,000 people died, was intended to pay for the implementation of tighter regulations to make new buildings earthquake-proof. This money was seemingly not used for the stated purpose but siphoned off. New homes were consequently constructed so shabbily that people living in them had no chance of survival when the earthquakes occurred.
The third session, moderated by lawyer Melanie Gingell, centred on ‘Jin, Jîyan, Azadî, (Women, Life, Freedom): the theory and practice behind the slogan’. A trio of top-class women researchers, academics and activists charted the history of the Kurdish Women’s Revolution, how it has developed and grown, supported and inspired by Öcalan’s understanding and writings which argue that patriarchy and the oppression of women oppresses men too and all of society, precluding the creation of a truly democratic and just society. They included Rojîn Mikuryanî, a PhD candidate at Cork University College; Dastan Jasim, a doctoral fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg; and Iida Käyhkö, a member of the Jineolojî Committee in Europe and a doctoral researcher at Royal Holloway University.
The slogan “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” was first coined by the Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement in the 1990s when autonomous women’s organisations were established under Öcalan’s reworking of the paradigm. A version – “Jina Mahsa Amini” – went viral and became a worldwide rallying call for women everywhere to protest in solidarity for their human rights after the brutal murder by the Iranian ‘moral police’ of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September.
The Kurdish Women’s Revolution and what it has achieved is a model not just for the Middle East but for all societies in the West and the global south. However, whether as members and commanders in the YPJ (Kurdish Women’s Defence Force), as human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, academics, artists, parliamentarians and co-mayors, Kurdish women have been targeted for arrest, detention, sexual violence and assassination by the Turkish authorities, and many have been martyred.
A final session was moderated by Eda Düzgün and focused on ‘The Crises in the Middle East and Abdullah Öcalan’s Democratic Middle East Solution’.
Speakers included the already mentioned Zainab Murad Sahrab, legal academic Dr Hosman Ismail from Cardiff University and the independent academic and expert Dr Seevan Saeed, who also acted as an excellent interpreter at various points during the proceedings.
Jeremy Corbyn MP gave the closing address via Zoom, perhaps freer to speak about the Kurdish issue than when high office constrained him.
There were many contributions from the floor including an impassioned plea from veteran campaigner and human rights barrister Margaret Owen who asked: “Why does the UK continue to call Turkey ‘our great ally’, selling arms to Erdoğan, refusing to condemn him for his crimes against humanity and war crimes and will not plead for Öcalan’s freedom?”
The answer is partly Brexit, of course, as the Tory government is now chasing trade deals at any price, disregarding the human rights records of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
Post-script: The meeting paid tribute to the imprisoned cultural activist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Osman Kavala and the Kurdish politician, former mayor and HDP deputy Leyla Güven, who is once again behind bars. Also remembered was the British martyr Anna Campbell, who joined the YPJ and died in 2018 defending Afrin. Her remains have still not been returned for burial in the UK.