Former CPT member Restellini: Abdullah Öcalan should be free

ANF spoke with Swiss doctor and lawyer Jean-Pierre Restellini, who visited Abdullah Öcalan in prison three times as a member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT).

There has been no news of Abdullah Öcalan for two and a half years. The last contact with the Kurdish leader, who has been imprisoned on the prison island of Imrali in the Turkish Sea of Marmara since 1999, was an interrupted phone call with his brother in March 2021. In October, an international campaign was launched for his freedom and a political solution to the Kurdish question. Jean-Pierre Restellini, a Swiss forensic pathologist, doctor and lawyer who visited Imrali with a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in 1999, 2010 and 2013, was asked by Serkan Demirel for the European Agenda programme on Medya Haber TV about his contacts with Abdullah Öcalan. Restelli worked as an expert for the CPT for more than 30 years and was President of the Swiss National Commission for the Prevention of Torture between 2009 and 2015.

As a member of the CPT, you visited Imrali immediately after the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and then in 2010 and 2013. Can you tell us what happened during those visits?

Yes, I visited Abdullah Öcalan three times, and on the last two visits I also saw his fellow prisoners. The first visit was in 1999, almost 25 years ago. So my memories are a little faded. During this first visit, Abdullah Öcalan was very nervous because he had just been arrested. He didn't know who we were and didn't understand what we were trying to do or whether we wanted to help him. It took a few hours for him to relax and tell us what he had experienced. That was our first visit.

During our visits in 2010 and after, he was much more relaxed. Prison conditions had improved somewhat. Since I, as a doctor, was concerned about Öcalan's health, I asked to be allowed to examine him. Everyone was asked to leave the room and we were left alone in a purely medical environment, able to share information that is subject to medical confidentiality and which I cannot give you, clearly. After this second visit, which was a memorable visit for me, we remained good friends. Öcalan is a very nice person.

Our third visit in 2013 was in the same setting and we were happy to see each other again. He called me "my French doctor" because he knew that I spoke French. I liked this discourse.

In summary, it was clear from these meetings that he was not a victim of violence and was not ill-treated by the authorities.

However, the conditions in which he is being held today, particularly isolation, are very difficult. I don't know exactly what his current situation is, but in any case, it is terribly violent for everyone in isolation to be confined to a small square of concrete four meters long with little or no means of communication and have freedom of movement. These conditions are extremely difficult to endure.

Can you tell us a little about Imrali Prison? For example, the structure of the prison...

As you know, Imrali used to be an island housing many people. During our first visit, the Turkish authorities told us that they had to evacuate the entire island within a few weeks to accommodate a special prisoner like Öcalan. It is a prison controlled by submarines and security measures at the highest level. I have visited hundreds of prisons around the world and I cannot remember ever seeing such a high level of security in a prison.

What was Abdullah Öcalan's attitude towards the CPT delegation during your visits?

When we first visited in 1999, Öcalan was quite tense. At our later meetings he was quite cordial. He was even willing to talk about his experiences and share his hopes for his people and himself. After more than 20 years, it is sad for me to know that his situation has not changed much.

Were political issues discussed in those meetings?

I allowed him to talk politics in our one-on-one conversations, but you should know that everything we said was recorded by the ever-present cameras. For example, I couldn't say "Long live Kurdistan" when I was with him because otherwise I would have gotten into trouble when I left. The Turks might not have wanted me to come back to Imrali. In such a situation, I had to remain neutral, so we had to be careful about what we said and how we behaved.

Did Abdullah Öcalan tell you about the conditions in Imrali?

He didn't feel the need to tell us about it because we got an idea of his condition during our visits. As a delegation, we visited and analyzed the entire prison system. During our visits, I was in close contact with Öcalan's doctors, as we were also concerned about his health. Since he was not so young, we wanted to make sure that his health and the health structure of the prison were good, and we wanted to make sure that it would be possible to quickly evacuate him to the coast or to a military ship in case something went wrong or he needed medical help.

But I can tell you that the Turkish authorities built the structure of the prison in such a way that Öcalan is not exposed to accidents. They couldn't afford for any accident to happen to Öcalan. That would have been politically serious for them because the whole world was closely monitoring Öcalan's prison conditions.

Abdullah Öcalan has been imprisoned on Imrali for almost 25 years. It's certainly not easy to spend so many years in the conditions of Imrali, is it?

Of course, it's not easy at all. It is very difficult to withstand psychologically on Imrali. But what keeps Öcalan alive is the fact that he knows that his people are behind him. Maybe that's why he's still alive. When we first visited him, we were worried that his mental state might be breaking down, that he might be suicidal or something like that. However, that wasn't the case. During our further meetings we noticed that he remained psychologically very strong.

Conditions on Imrali have not changed significantly in the past 25 years. There has been no news from Abdullah Öcalan for around 32 months. He has been completely deprived of the right to see his lawyers and family. What do you think of his current isolation?

There are various rumors about Öcalan's current situation. If, as you say, he has no contact with his family and his lawyers, that is a very difficult and terrible situation. There is no doubt about that. But I cannot speak with certainty unless I rely on my own observations.

But aren't the conditions of isolation a violation of human rights?

This is an important issue that you are raising. The question of whether or not years of solitary confinement constitutes a human rights violation has been the subject of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies, if I'm not mistaken. I'd have to look to be sure.

Some courts have ruled that keeping a person in solitary confinement for years is inhumane and degrading. However, I am not sure if there is any precedent from the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. However, it is worth checking as the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights can be applied to Öcalan's imprisonment.

The only organization allowed to enter Imrali is the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). The last visit took place in September 2022, but a report on that visit has still not been published despite all requests. How do you assess this attitude of the CPT?

Unless the state concerned responds to the CPT's report, i.e. if it does not prepare and publish its response, the CPT cannot publish its own report in accordance with the Convention. This situation is, of course, perceived by the Kurds as shocking and abnormal. However, I would like to point out that empowering the CPT to go where it wants, when it wants, is a very sensitive issue. If the CPT starts violating certain rules, states can react by saying: ‘We don't want you anymore, you are violating the convention.’ That would be a negative situation for everyone. Therefore, it is important to be cautious. It is not the CPT that is to blame for not publishing the report on the aforementioned visit a year ago, but rather the Turkish authorities for not publishing their response to the CPT's visit.

Turkey is obliged to publish the response to the CPT's latest Imrali visit. We often encounter this problem. In the Council of Europe, which has a total of 45 countries, some states publish their response to the CPT report immediately, while others wait for years and some even wait until a new government is formed in the country.

Abdullah Öcalan's lawyers and many human rights activists say the CPT's stance on Imrali is political. Do you think the CPT is under political pressure regarding Abdullah Öcalan's situation?

When you sit on a committee that criticizes, it is understandable that the states being criticized are often not happy. That is clear. But the claim that political pressure is being used to prevent the CPT from speaking out is an argument that has never been proven. The CPT has always been able to express the data it receives in prisons, taking into account the conventions to which it must adhere.

Turkey is a signatory to the Council of Europe and many other international agreements. Nevertheless, today, not only the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, but also thousands of political prisoners are being held in very harsh conditions in Turkish prisons. Doesn't Turkey's actions violate these treaties?

Yes, absolutely. These violations are not limited to political prisoners, but also relate to the general situation of the Kurdish people. When I first visited the Kurdistan Region 40 years ago, the Kurds were viewed by the Turks as people of the mountains and were often treated as second-class citizens. Today, the Turkish state continues to violate the rights of the Kurdish people.

Do you think that the war that the Turkish state is waging against the Kurdish people in the four parts of Kurdistan and Öcalan's isolation are related? Is isolation part of the war against the Kurdish people?

Yes, it certainly is. Because they are afraid of Öcalan. They are afraid of what Öcalan might do if he is released. It's not just the Turks who are afraid of Öcalan, but also other countries with Kurdish populations. They fear that Öcalan, once free, will unite the Kurds in these countries. They see this situation and Öcalan's freedom as a threat to themselves.

As someone who was in close contact with Abdullah Öcalan, what would you like to say about his role and his ideas for resolving the Kurdish question?

I believe that a solution to the Kurdish question will eventually be found. It is undeniable that the Kurdish issue is a concern on a similar level to the current Palestinian-Israeli question. It is a problem that needs a solution. However, I believe that Öcalan is and will remain the "father", the leader of the Kurdish people, and that his ideas are very positive and important for the Kurdish people and for resolving the Kurdish question. The problem is that many countries don't share this point of view. This creates tensions and, unfortunately, these tensions are not limited to the Kurdish people, but there are many situations in the world that are similar to what you, the Kurdish people, are going through.

Abdullah Öcalan was convicted as the leader of the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. What would you say about this definition of terror?

First of all, it is important to ask what a terrorist is. When I was a member of the CPT, I voted for a motion to ban the use of the term "terrorist" because the term in itself means nothing. It is usually used to describe the use of force. Therefore, any war can be considered terrorism. In its current definition, terrorism is used as a means of defaming a group of people.

For example, if you fight to liberate your country, you can be called a terrorist. During World War II, the French who fought to defend their country were labeled terrorists. Similarly, Chechens who fought against the Russians were labeled terrorists. In short, when you resist something and take up arms to defend your country, you can be called a terrorist. This term actually doesn’t mean much.

In connection with this question, I would like to ask you about the European Union's decision to classify the PKK as a terrorist organization. How do you evaluate this decision?

I was amazed at this decision. I would like to use the expression that you used for the CPT: it may be that there was political pressure on the European Union to take this decision, or that it made a political decision. In any case, I was surprised that the EU made such a decision.

As a member of the CPT, you have visited hundreds of prisons and written a book about your impressions of these prisons. In your opinion, which prison has the worst conditions and where do you place Imrali Prison?

That depends on the criteria of the individual prisons. I have also visited prisons in Central and North Africa. In Central Africa, there are prisons where prisoners are starving, especially in hot countries where they cannot sleep inside and have to spend the night outside where they are exposed to mosquitoes. It is difficult to categorise the worst prisons because it also depends on the resilience of the prisoners. Someone who is mentally strong and physically healthy will survive prison better than someone who is less fortunate in this respect.

It's been a long time since I was on Imrali. Judging by what I observed during that visit, the conditions on Imrali didn't seem so bad back then. Back then, Abdullah Öcalan was allowed to meet with other prisoners, play sports and follow the media. It is important and essential for a prisoner to be in contact with fellow prisoners, to do sports, to follow developments, to have contact with the outside world, to be able to meet with his family and his lawyers. Abdullah Öcalan had all of this in 2013.

Many of the rights that you experienced in 2013, such as the right to contact lawyers and family members, i.e. the right to communicate with the outside world, were completely taken away from Abdullah Öcalan. According to his lawyers, Abdullah Öcalan was also deprived of many of his rights inside prison. So, I would like to ask once again: are these not violations?

If the situation is as you say, then it is completely unacceptable. For example, when we first visited Öcalan in 1999, the conditions of detention were unsatisfactory. The CPT raised its concerns with the Turkish authorities and demanded that these conditions be changed. The authorities have gradually changed some aspects of the detention conditions. If Öcalan is being held in the same conditions today as he was in 1999, this is unacceptable to both the CPT and myself.

As you probably know, South African leader Nelson Mandela regained his freedom after 27 years in prison. The international community played an important role in the process that led Mandela to freedom. Do you see a similarity between the situation of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan and that of Mandela? Can the international community also play a role in Abdullah Öcalan's freedom?

Yes, definitely. When I met with Öcalan, that was one of the topics we talked about several times. I mentioned the example of Nelson Mandela, how Mandela, who was considered a terrorist in his own country, was released and then became the leader of his country, and how he always kept hope. We can talk about similarities between Öcalan's situation and Mandela's situation. The same process can take place for Öcalan.

Can the international community take action for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan as well?

Of course, the international community can do something for Öcalan. But at the moment, in the tense international situation we find ourselves in, I don't think this will be a priority, at least not from the point of view of international public opinion. But, of course, they can make a difference for Öcalan.

Can't the United Nations help to change the conditions under which Abdullah Öcalan is imprisoned?

Yes, the United Nations (UN) can intervene in Öcalan's situation. The UN Special Rapporteur against Torture could also look into Öcalan's situation. At this point, a voice would be raised.

On 10 October, politicians, writers, intellectuals, human rights defenders, trade unions, including world-renowned personalities, issued a joint statement in 74 locations around the world and launched a campaign calling for "Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan and a political solution to the Kurdish question". What would you like to say about this campaign?

It is an important situation. It is necessary to continue such campaigns. The vigil for Öcalan's freedom near the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, for example, is an important action. It is necessary to continue actions to recognise Öcalan.

Abdullah Öcalan is today recognised as the leader of the Kurdish people and thus represents more than 40 million people. Nevertheless, he has been imprisoned for 25 years in a country ruled by Erdoğan, who is seen by many as a dictatorial regime. What do you think can be done to change the conditions in which Öcalan finds himself?

Of course, we must put pressure on Erdoğan and do everything we can to bring about change. But I don't know what else we can do. I think it is very important that people continue to mobilise and, above all, never forget Öcalan and continue to embrace him.

Do you have a message for the freedom of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan?

I repeat: Öcalan is indisputably the father and leader of the Kurdish people. When you have a father, a leader in captivity, you want to protect him. Since I have a very sincere and even sympathetic relationship with Öcalan, I personally want him to be released from prison as soon as possible and be free. This wish is very clear to me. I repeat, I wish with all my heart that Öcalan is free and I hope to be able to visit him soon in his own Kurdish state.

Who is Jean-Pierre Restellini?

Jean-Pierre Restellini is a Swiss doctor and lawyer who has worked as an expert for the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture for over 30 years. In parallel to his work for the CPT, Restellini also chaired the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture in Switzerland between 2009 and 2015. Restellini has visited hundreds of prisons around the world and has written a book entitled "Travel diaries of a doctor carrying out medical inspections in European prisons".