Free Öcalan

Julie Ward says Kurdish women and other political prisoners face illegal penal treatment

During Human Rights Week in December 2023, I joined a delegation of women from several different European countries as part of a fact-finding mission organised by the Kurdish Women’s Movement. Our aim was to observe the situation of the Kurdish people and other minorities in Turkey who are living under an increasingly authoritarian regime.

During our visit we gathered numerous testimonies from associations, organisations, and individuals regarding wide-spread violations. Our delegation, which included legal experts and human rights campaigners, paid attention to the situation of political prisoners and, in particular, the continued isolation and imprisonment of the democratic leader of the Kurdish people, Abdullah Öcalan, who remains incarcerated on Imrali Island. As a female delegation we were also concerned about the situation of Kurdish and minority women.

The testimonies we heard confirmed our fears that the Turkish government is systematically violating the fundamental rights of Kurdish and political prisoners – and particularly of Öcalan and other prisoners held in Imrali. The regime in Imrali and in other prisons, often involves isolating people for 23 hours a day over periods of years or even decades. We are clear that, according to international norms, prolonged or indefinite isolation constitutes inhuman or degrading treatment and as such is a form of torture.

The Turkish authority’s practice of prisoner isolation is accompanied by other gross violations of fundamental rights, such as prisoners serving sentences in prisons far from families, prohibition of family contact, prevention of access to lawyers, independent interpreters and to programmes and services that take into account the gender and cultural identity of prisoners. The situation of prisoners who suffer from illnesses, whether physical or mental, is especially worrying. We heard evidence that sick prisoners are kept in unhygienic conditions, prevented from accessing even the most basic medical care. The situation of imprisoned women is of grave concern, especially mothers of nursing or young children. We understand that it is common for 50 prisoners to share one toilet; this situation is deleterious for the physical and psychological health of women. The delegation concluded that thousands of prisoners in Turkey have a valid case for immediate release on medical grounds.

We heard from families who have been prevented from accessing the remains of relatives who died in prison, and diktats barring the holding of memorials or funerals in accordance with the culture and traditions of the Kurdish people. In many cases, this is enforced by the presence of the police or military.

All of the practices mentioned here are prohibited by international provisions and conventions and have resulted in Kurdish prisoners across Turkey protesting their situation in the form of hunger strikes.

We saw convincing evidence that Turkey’s judicial system is being used extrajudicially for the political repression of the Kurdish people. In Bakur, where there is a majority Kurdish population, democratically elected municipal representatives continue to be forcibly replaced by AKP delegated administrators. This denial of the most basic of democratic processes has continued for several years.

We met with people from all walks of life, including those active in the field of Kurdish language and culture, who live in constant fear of being arrested and imprisoned under the pretext of “suspicion of working for a terrorist organisation. The delegation unequivocally condemned Turkey’s use of “terrorism” accusations to repress the political will of the Kurdish people, and as a tool of ethnic cleansing.  

The imprisonment and isolation of Öcalan and all political prisoners in Turkey must be seen in the context of Turkey’s ongoing attacks on the autonomous administration of Rojava. The frontlines of this war have moved within the borders of the Turkish state in the form of increasing oppression of the Kurdish citizens of Turkey. The situation is not helped by the position of many European countries who repeatedly fail to take action on Turkey’s dire human rights record, watching as it fills its prisons with journalists, academics, civil society workers and political dissidents whilst engaging in despicable refugee deals and supply of arms. (NB Turkey has not ratified the UN Arms Trade Treaty.)

Through engagement with Kurdish women’s organisations, we observed how women experience two intertwined frontlines, that of the violence and cultural genocide they face within Turkey as Kurds, and the misogyny, violence and femicide they face as women. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention communicates a clear message, both for the Turkish population and internationally: the Turkish government’s lack of respect for women’s rights. This is in sharp contrast to the values of the Kurdish freedom movement and its focus on women’s liberation.

We heard countless testimonies of women being threatened, harassed, detained without charge for extended periods, imprisoned and tortured simply for going about their lives, for participating in their culture, for trying to find “disappeared” relatives and for standing up for their own and others’ basic rights. Our delegation met with mothers who have lost their children in prison or to state violence. As a women’s delegation, we promised to carry their stories with us and to redouble our efforts to strengthen international solidarity with the Kurdish struggle.

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