Lawyer Bilmez: Our client Öcalan is at high risk

The isolation of Abdullah Ocalan and his three fellow prisoners on Imrali cannot be compared to the domestic lockdown during the Corona pandemic. Lawyer Ibrahim Bilmez hopes for empathy.

The Istanbul-based Asrın Law Office called on the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to act in a report of 16 April on the illegal conditions on the prison island of Imrali during the Corona pandemic. Lawyer Ibrahim Bilmez of the defence team of Abdullah Öcalan says that the isolation that has been going on for 21 years is not for health reasons but is used for political reasons as a measure of revenge and punishment. There is a high risk for his client due to his age and a chronic respiratory disease, Ibrahim Bilmez explains in an interview with the ANF.

The already bad conditions in Turkish prisons have become even more critical due to the Corona pandemic. You have contacted the CPT for your clients Abdullah Öcalan, Ömer Hayri Konar, Hamili Yıldırım and Veysi Aktaş. Why do you consider this necessary?

The isolation system on Imrali represents a state of lawlessness in which there is no flow of information. It is not the type of isolation recommended as a preventive measure in the Corona pandemic. The isolation, which has lasted for 21 years, is used as a means of punishment and revenge. Hundreds of civilian and military personnel are employed on Imrali, who are replaced at regular intervals and work in shifts. So they come from outside the island and there is no way of checking whether they bring the virus with them to the island. Our requests for preventive measures have been rejected, as has our request that we be informed of the measures taken there, if any. We have summarised these legal procedures, our concerns and our demands in a report and forwarded it to the CPT.

Your report also states that your clients are not allowed to use the telephone because of a disciplinary penalty imposed on them. How does this ban fit in with human rights during the pandemic?

Mr. Öcalan has not been able to use his right to telephone communication once since he has been on Imrali. Our other three clients, who were transferred to Imrali later, have never been allowed to have a phone talk from there either, although their status has not changed and they had been allowed to talk with their relatives on the phone in the previous detention centres. There are also other clients who were held at Imrali for a while and are now in other prisons where they can talk on the phone with family members. Because of the pandemic, the length of time they can talk on the phone has generally been extended, and they can exercise this right. All this shows that one cannot speak of a legal system at Imrali. A separate isolation system has been installed on the island, where the law does not count and absolute arbitrariness prevails.

There are so many examples of this that it is impossible to list them all. Let me give just one example: Without our knowledge, our clients face disciplinary sanctions. The purpose of these is to use them as grounds for refusing family visits. For years, every week for years, family visit requests have been rejected on these grounds. We do not know why and for what reason these disciplinary penalties are imposed, but we are sure that they are arbitrary. What is actually worse is that we are not informed of the whole process. And if we learn of it in any way, the investigation files are withheld from us. If the time limit for appeal has not yet expired, we try to appeal without inspecting the files, without knowing the reason for the disciplinary penalty. Throughout Turkey, lawyers can, if they have a mandate, obtain access to files via the UYAP system and submit applications in the same way. But we do not have access to files in this way either. The reason is always the same: security!

Your client Abdullah Öcalan is 71 years old and is therefore in the risk group of the pandemic. He has been held in severe isolation conditions for 21 years and also has respiratory problems. Doesn't the continuation of the detention conditions pose a health risk?

Of course, the pandemic represents a major threat to the health and life of our client. As you have said, there is a high risk because of his age and, in particular, because of a chronic respiratory disease, especially as he has had to live in difficult isolation conditions for 21 years. In the aforementioned motions, we referred to this and called for the necessary measures to be taken, but, as I said, they were rejected in an arbitrary manner. And we simply do not know at the moment how Mr. Öcalan and our other clients are doing in terms of health.

With regard to Imrali prison, there is another negative aspect: if our clients become infected with the virus, there are no treatment options on the island, for example, there is no hospital with a respirator. And we know that timely and rapid intervention is important for this disease. A transfer from Imrali to a hospital on the mainland would take hours. That is another concern.

You've applied for a conversation opportunity several times. At the moment, however, personal contact is generally not recommended. In your opinion, how could a conversation take place without endangering your health?

Of course we are aware of the rules to be observed in the event of a pandemic and we also state this in our requests for visits. We say that we want to speak under appropriate conditions. For the contact between lawyers and clients, face-to-face talks are fundamental, but this right can be waived exceptionally for health reasons. Instead of direct contact, a conversation can be conducted with telephone receivers in a non-contact visitation. In some prisons such conversations take place between lawyers and their clients.

The Corona pandemic gives people an idea of what isolation means. Your client Abdullah Öcalan has been in severe isolation for years. What can you say to this?

As I said at the beginning, the isolation on Imrali, which is practised out of revenge and has political intentions other than punishment, cannot be compared to the isolation that we have largely voluntarily and temporarily maintained for our health. We can sit comfortably at home, we have access to all kinds of communications and media, and we can make video calls to our loved ones via computer and telephone when we miss them, and even that is something we sometimes complain about. Mr Öcalan and the other three people who are being isolated on Imrali have for years been able to talk to their lawyers or relatives only in very limited exceptional cases. They cannot communicate either by telephone or in writing, they cannot ask about the condition of their loved ones and they cannot tell anything about their own situation. Perhaps a little empathy is created among people by their domestic lockdown during the pandemic.

You have turned to the CPT as a last resort, can the committee find a solution in this state of lawlessness? What steps do you expect? And can you estimate when your request will be answered?

The CPT is one of the few official international bodies capable of identifying the isolation and illegality at Imrali and demanding its lifting. It has been monitoring the situation on Imrali since February 1999 and has visited the island several times. Following the visits, reports have been drawn up on the irregularities observed, including advice on how to improve the situation. These reports were first submitted to Turkey and were later published. The problem, however, is that all our complaints about irregularities and the isolation measures, in other words all the arbitrariness, are already included in all the reports published by the CPT. So what the CPT must do is to contact the relevant authorities in Turkey immediately. It must ensure that our urgent demands in connection with the Corona pandemic are met and it must continue to monitor developments. Otherwise, it will mean tacit approval of the action on Imrali.

In our last report to the CPT we summarised the following demands: In order to prevent the virus from spreading to Imrali prison, the necessary health and hygiene measures must be taken urgently; we want to be fully informed about the state of health of our clients; family and lawyer meetings must take place with our clients under appropriate conditions; the right to telephone contact must be applied immediately, the systematic imposition of arbitrary disciplinary sanctions must cease and the sanctions imposed must be lifted.