"Imrali is a very dark chapter in Western human rights policy"

Despite a binding resolution of the Council of Europe, Turkey is not prepared to lift Abdullah Öcalan's isolation. "Imrali is a very dark chapter of human rights policy in the West," says Hamburg-based international law expert Norman Paech.

Abdullah Öcalan is considered the legitimate representative of the Kurdish freedom movement. Since his abduction from the Greek embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi in February 1999 in violation of international law, the Kurdish mastermind has been on the Turkish prison island of Imrali. For eleven years he was the only prisoner there - guarded by more than a thousand soldiers. Between July 2011 and May 2019 he was denied any legal assistance. Öcalan thus holds the "European record" for imprisonment without access to lawyers. Only a hunger strike movement initiated by Kurdish politician Leyla Güven in the fall of 2018 made it possible to break the isolation on Imrali - even if only temporarily. For more than a year now, Öcalan has once again been in de facto total isolation. Contrary to European jurisprudence, the demands of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Turkish state is still not prepared to lift the isolation at Imrali. ANF spoke with the Hamburg-based international law expert Prof. Dr. Norman Paech about the background.

Why is Abdullah Öcalan still in prison?

The last time I spoke with Abdullah Öcalan was in 1999 in Lido di Ostia near Rome. He had flown there and had been granted temporary asylum by the Italian government, but then we had a long discussion about what to do and where to go in Europe at all, where he could be safe. It turned out that Abdullah Öcalan was not safe in any of the European countries. From the beginning he was a marked man that nobody wanted to have. Finally he was shipped to Kenya by the Greeks and captured by the Turks with the assistance of the USA and also the Israeli secret service. This is, I would say, a real crime. To simply isolate such a man, who is of truly eminent political importance, and put him behind bars for so long. The background is very clear: Europe is in agreement about this, and the many trials here in Germany are proof of this, that they do not want to have anything to do with this liberation movement. One rather cooperates with the criminal Erdogan regime than with this movement.

Why did Öcalan become the target of these states that were involved in his abduction?

Until Abdullah Öcalan took over the leadership of the Kurdish movement, the movement was handled quite well. In other words, they did not have to pay attention to it, it did not cause any problems. But Öcalan restored the identity of the Kurds and their awareness of their own people, their right to self-determination and the need to be recognized as a people and treated as equals. He caused a lot of unrest in these countries because the Kurds, spread over several countries, were finally demanding their rights. In itself, according to the values of these Western governments, this is the most normal and recognized thing one can have. But they did not want to stand with this movement and with these rights against a NATO partner. And unfortunately that has remained so until today.

The ECHR has been called upon time and again because human rights are being violated on the prison island of Imrali, where Öcalan has been imprisoned since 1999. Complaints have also been filed with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) against the background of the more difficult conditions in solitary confinement. Why do the European countries remain silent?

This is a very dark chapter in human rights policy in the West, but also in Germany. It is accepted that Erdogan is intervening in northern Syria, occupying Afrin and the north of Rojava. They criticize him, but they do nothing about it. And one must see that he basically maintains a collaboration between these governments. The background is very clear, Turkey is a NATO partner. They have common interests towards the Middle East, but they also have common interests in maintaining a high wall against the refugees, which they themselves have caused. The wars that were fought there are the ones that are now driving the refugees to Europe. Erdogan plays an immense role in keeping the refugees away from Europe. This is one of the key points of this collaboration with his government.

Is the situation of Öcalan and his isolation at the center of this conflict?

I am convinced that they are not prepared - we have a similar problem in Palestine, and there too they are not prepared to support a people that has a right to self-determination and a right to an existence worthy of human beings, not only legally but also politically and morally, so that these rights can not only be demanded but also fulfilled. These are two peoples in the Middle East who have been abandoned by the West. It is necessary to keep reminding people that this unsolved mystery and really big hole is a white field in the politics of the West.

Could Abdullah Öcalan's proposed solutions overcome the conflicts in the Middle East?

That's also where I remember my first conversation with Abdullah Öcalan in Damascus in 1996, when we talked about the perspectives of the Kurds in the Middle East. And at that time it was already clear that he had given up the old plan of an independent Kurdistan. He said that the Kurdish people were not yet ready, that the future lay in a federation of peoples in the whole Near and Middle East. In other words, it was an extremely peaceful perspective in a future, in a federation of the many peoples who live there, and unaffected by the old colonial borders, which would have to dissolve with time to ensure a democratic existence of all peoples. That was his goal. And Rojava is today one of those projects that is very late, but basically also the only one and the first one that tries to realize this perspective and is also attacked by Turkey, by Syria. In other words, there is still a great open wound of democracy and human rights.

How would the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan influence developments in Kurdistan and the Near and Middle East?

If Öcalan were to be released, it would be an absolute signal for a total change of policy on the one hand for Turkey, but then also for the USA and those powers that permanently intervene in the Middle East. It would perhaps be the starting point for a democratic opening of all governments so that the many peoples who live there next to each other, who are democratically organized and have equal rights, can coexist peacefully.

You first met Öcalan in 1996. What was your first impression of him?

At that time he was still full of optimism, even though he had to live in a rather restricted area near Damascus. He had spoken with us for a long time, we were a small delegation of scientists. There were two main points that preoccupied us there: First, the future of the armed struggle. Also in 1996, we talked that an armed struggle could have no prospect of success in the face of such a highly armed NATO state. The second was the question of the future structure and existence of the Kurdish people, where Öcalan then also distanced himself from separation, secession, which the Kurds are still accused of today. Even back then he spoke out in favor of democratic autonomy and self-administration within the borders of Turkey. These were the essential elements and we discussed them at length. It was an open, very permissive and also very discursive discussion.

He has continued this project on Imrali.

Yes, these are, so to speak, the basic positions that he has always taken as a basis in his great works, even in Imrali. That was actually always the problem for him: how can one guarantee a dignified life in a democratic way, respecting all human rights - not only for the Kurds, but also for all other peoples in this great Middle Eastern arc. That was and is for him in his writings actually the cantus firmus, so to speak the basis of all argumentation.


Norman Paech was born in Bremerhaven in 1938. After studying art history, literature and then law at the universities of Tübingen, Munich and Paris, he came to Hamburg in 1959 to study law at the University of Hamburg. After receiving his doctorate, he completed additional studies at the German Institute for Development Policy in Berlin in the late 1960s and worked for about four years at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation in Bonn. From the mid-1970s he worked as Professor of Political Science at the University of Hamburg, then as Professor of Public Law at the Hamburg School of Economics and Politics (HWP) until his retirement in 2003. From 2005 to 2009, he was a member of the German Parliament and foreign policy spokesman for the parliamentary group DIE LINKE. He is a member of various progressive associations such as VDJ, IALANA and IPPNW. Main focus of his activities is the peace movement.

Norman Paech has published numerous enlightening books: "Human Rights. History and Present – Claim and Reality” in 2005 (updated 2013) he wrote the standard work "International Law and Power Politics in International Relations” " together with his Bremen colleague Gerhard Stuby. Paech wrote the preface for Abdullah Öcalan's defense writings "On the Solution of the Kurdish Question - Visions of a Democratic Republic". Norman Paech also contributed to the anthology "Building Free Life - Dialogues with Abdullah Öcalan", a detailed examination of the thinking and writing of the PKK founder and his political influence.