Lawyer and MP Uysal: The Kurdish people are deprived of the right to hope

MP and lawyer Newroz Uysal describes the deprivation of the right to hope for release, as practised against Abdullah Öcalan, as a measure against the entire Kurdish people.

For 31 months there has been no sign of life from the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned on the island of Imrali. This form of total isolation contradicts both national and international law. Visits by lawyers are completely prevented under the pretext of various disciplinary sanctions. A ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also states that the Turkish state is violating the "right to hope" by imposing a non-reducible life sentence on Öcalan. According to Article 107 (16) of the Turkish Criminal Law, persons convicted of acts committed within the framework of the activities of a "terrorist organisation" and sentenced to an aggravated life sentence shall remain in prison until death.

"Imprisonment until death" contradicts the prohibition of torture

This practice of imprisonment “until death" was first put on the agenda of the ECtHR with a ruling on the execution of Abdullah Öcalan. The ECtHR handed down a judgment on Abdullah Öcalan on 18 March 2014, referred to as the Öcalan-1 decision. In the ruling, the Committee of Ministers stated that an aggravated life sentence with no prospect of release violates the prohibition of torture, and that new legislation should be adopted in Turkey in this regard. This decision from 2014 would mean that the execution of Abdullah Öcalan's prison sentence would have to be reviewed in 2024. This is because the ECtHR considers the completion of 25 years of imprisonment to be an appropriate period for the "review" of life imprisonment.

"Right to hope" does not apply to Öcalan

On 3 December 2021, the ECtHR delivered a decision, the so-called Ocalan 2 decision, in relation to an application by Öcalan's lawyers. In its ruling, the ECtHR called on Turkey to take the necessary measures to bring the existing legal provisions into line with the standards set by the ECtHR. In the same framework, it requested information on the number of persons sentenced to life imprisonment and asked Turkey to provide this information by September 2022. In its reply, Turkey stated that Abdullah Öcalan was exempt from this right: "Conditional release of convicts sentenced to a aggravated life imprisonment is possible, but some crimes are excluded from this possibility."

In an interview with ANF, HEDEP (Peoples’ Democracy and Equality Party) deputy Newroz Uysal commented on the Turkish state's actions against Abdullah Öcalan. Uysal was in the defence team of Öcalan and his three fellow prisoners on Imrali for a long time and was the last lawyer to see her client, Öcalan, in August 2019.

What is this "right to hope" that the ECtHR is calling for?

In the dictionary, hope is described as a feeling of inner confidence that comes from hoping. In legal terminology, I can define it briefly as "the possibility of the release of a person sentenced to life imprisonment or aggravated life imprisonment".

With the advancement of human rights worldwide, many states have introduced the possibility of imprisonment until death without the option of release with the abolition of the death penalty. Because of this way of carrying out custodial sentences until death, the concept of the "right to hope" was developed. It is believed that this concept was first introduced by the decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court of 21 June 1997. This decision stated that such a type of punishment was a serious blow to the core of human dignity by the state. This decision forms the basis for the current rulings. These court decisions were followed by the ECtHR's recognition of the violation of the right to hope as a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The first landmark decision was Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom on 9 July 2013.

What is the state of implementation of these sentences in Turkey?

In Turkey, the death penalty was replaced by an aggravated life sentence by Law No. 5170 of 14 July 2004. The new Penal Code of 1 June 2005 defined the aggravated life sentence as the execution of imprisonment under severe conditions of isolation and detention until death. Although the concept of the right to hope was partially discussed in Turkey after this amendment, the first major debates took place only after the ECtHR ruling on Abdullah Öcalan on 18 March 2014. The aggravated life sentence introduced by Turkey after the abolition of the death penalty following the death sentence against Abdullah Öcalan is regulated as "life imprisonment without the possibility of release" for acts defined as terrorist offences. The execution of an aggravated life sentence until death results in the deprivation of the "right to hope". The ECtHR judgment, referring to the judgment in Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom, stated that the possibility of conditional release must be created by establishing appropriate legislation in line with the judgment.

As a result, it means that every person must have the prospect of being set free through a tangible and achievable legal provision. At the core of the right to hope is "respect for the human condition and the protection of human dignity". If Turkey's aggravated life imprisonment is not regulated in accordance with this ECtHR ruling and legal principles, thousands of prisoners, especially Abdullah Öcalan, will be deprived of their "right to hope" through discriminatory, unequal and torture-like execution. Turkey is violating binding international conventions by not legally changing this type of punishment and continuing to use it because it fears that Abdullah Öcalan might one day be released.

The law was changed against Abdullah Öcalan

Why does Turkey not recognise this right?

Abdullah Öcalan himself is the reason why imprisonment until death and thus, the deprivation of the right to hope was introduced in Turkey. On the way to EU accession, Turkey has gradually abolished the death penalty. If one follows the debates from 2002, during the process of abolishing the death penalty, this development can be traced from the press, columns, news programmes as well as from the parliamentary minutes. Those in charge said at the time: "All terrorists sentenced to death, especially the terrorist leader, have the possibility under Article 17 to be released after 33.5 years - he has now been in prison for three and a half years - and we definitely want to prevent that. We can prevent that by converting death sentences to aggravated life imprisonment and making a provision that they cannot enjoy conditional release, deferment or amnesty," while others said, "If you execute a person, he dies once. If you give him a heavy sentence, you kill him every day." That describes the mentality behind it.

With this kind of detention, Turkey wanted to legally prevent Abdullah Öcalan from being released. However, the ECtHR ruling established that this behaviour itself legally violates the prohibition of torture. This judgement has not been implemented until today, for nine years. Hundreds of people have been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment in Turkey following the verdict against Abdullah Öcalan. In the cases against Hayati Kaytan, Emin Gurban and Civan Boltan, the ECtHR ruled that sentences of aggravated life imprisonment violate Article 3 of the ECHR.

In order to realise the implementation of the right to hope in Turkey, instead of enforcing the aggravated life sentence until death, it is necessary to introduce a regime that is compatible with human dignity and the law. Such a change in the law is possible either through the political will in Turkey to change the law or through the monitoring process of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which is responsible for the implementation of the ECtHR judgment. However, the political will of the government of Turkey, as well as the policy of aggression against the Kurdish population and the policy of preventing any political solution, do not favour any arrangement that would allow Abdullah Öcalan to be released, even legally, in theory. On the contrary, the conditions of isolation are getting worse every day. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is slow, ineffective and does not fulfil the monitoring process required by law. What is happening is simply not put on the agenda of its meetings.

The Turkish Constitutional Court is hesitant to make a decision on the issue. Proposed amendments to the law submitted by MPs at various times have been delayed at parliamentary committees and not put on the agenda. The fact that the Committee of Ministers is not using its legal powers to take action against Turkey's behaviour gives the impression of a favouring legal-political approach.

"The target is the right to hope for the Kurdish people"

Is there a connection between the prevention of the right to hope and the attacks on Kurdish people?

We have already established that the reason for the undermining of the right to hope is Mr Abdullah Öcalan himself. Öcalan's illegal abduction in the international conspiracy with the aim of extraditing him to Turkey, the unfairness of his trial, the imposition of a death sentence, the conditions in Imrali prison and its illegal creation, the conversion of the death sentence into an aggravated life sentence and many more are part of the Imrali system. The reason for this system is the policy of refusing a solution to the Kurdish question and the war. Abdullah Öcalan advocates a solution and peace and was punished for it and is held hostage because he opposed the war policy. His punishment is like an execution in instalments. In parallel, the special war and the open war were practised at all levels against the Kurdish people. In other words, it is the Kurdish people's hope for freedom that is being sentenced to death here.

In this sense, there is a profound difference between those sentenced to life imprisonment, who are denied any prospect of release, and all other convicts. While the latter suffer the most severe conditions of imprisonment, the situation of Abdullah Öcalan is even more serious. He is denied the right to visit by his lawyer, his family, his trustee, the right to telephone and to communicate with the outside world, which is also stipulated for lifers. The reason for this unequal treatment and discrimination lies in Abdullah Öcalan's political position as a leader of a people. In this aggravated isolation system, there has been no sign of life from him for 31 months now.

This approach also means to isolate the Kurdish people in the Middle East and in the world, including all parts of Kurdistan. The organisers and implementers of the isolation system are the same forces that oppose a solution to the Kurdish question. With the robbed right of hope, the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan is meant to be legally prevented, and this attitude also concerns hundreds of other political prisoners. Politically, they want to put obstacles in the way of people's freedom. Every step that prevents freedom, every decision for war, every special war policy, every forest fire, every massacre, every ban, every repressive measure against Kurdish politics, every femicide, every attack is directed against the hope of a solution, peace and freedom.

On the other hand, if a similar attitude to that displayed by Abdullah Öcalan in Imralı is achieved both individually and at the organisational level, both the right to hope and the political freedom of the Kurdish people and peoples as a whole will be possible.