Every year, since the 2013–2015 peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish liberation movement broke down, an international delegation of jurists, parliamentarians, artists and intellectuals has visited Turkey in an attempt to revive the process.
The Imrali delegation, as has become known, is named after Turkey’s high security island prison where Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan has been detained in cruel isolation for 22 years.
Laura Quagliuolo, editor and author of children’s books and an activist in Rete Jin, an Italian network of women in support of the Kurdish women’s movement, was part of the 2021 Imrali delegation. It has recently published its report.
Quagliuolo told Green Left, that once again, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government had ignored their requests for discussions and to visit the imprisoned Kurdish leader.
“The Turkish state has never answered the requests of the several delegations that were asking to visit Öcalan or to meet with Turkish authorities, even if in the delegation there were professors, MP's and other important people. Not this time as well.”
The Turkish state hasn’t prevented the Imrali delegation from visiting Turkey, but this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the delegation had to conduct its “visit” via a series of Zoom meetings.
Despite this limitation, Quagliuolo said that the delegation obtained “a full picture of the terrible situation as we met with the Kurdish women's movement, unions, parties, lawyers (including the team that defends Öcalan), and human rights defenders”.
“The repression and the general situation are worsening. Women in Turkey have been robbed of all the gains made since 2012.
"Everyone in the society that opposes the regime feels isolated, and everyone who opposes the regime (journalists, women, activists, political prisoners and their families) are targeted as terrorists.”
A chilling section of the delegation’s report says:
“We learned about how women’s organisations had been closed down and women’s social rights restricted. We were told gruelling stories of individual women being abused and molested, often by uniformed authority.
“We were given evidence of increased brutality in the prisons, the way lawyers and trade unionists were being persecuted and political rights eroded; how kidnappings and disappearances by the police were commonplace: ‘We have had enough dead bodies delivered to our doorsteps,’ we were told.”
The delegation heard that “political prisoners are routinely tortured, and denied access to health care and even personal hygiene. Under the pretext of the pandemic, demonstrations are banned. Graveyards are ransacked across the Kurdish region, tombs are defiled, and the bones of PKK militants end up on the streets of Istanbul. Two people are thrown from a police helicopter in Van, and those who report it are detained and put on trial.
“Press freedom is basically non-existent. ‘You can expect a knock on your door the day after you criticise the government,’ we heard. Critical newspapers are shut down, and members of the board are charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation.
“Despite the fact that the vast majority of the press is by now owned by companies close to the government, or otherwise avoids making critical comments, according to Human Rights Watch, at the end of 2020 ‘an estimated 87 journalists and media workers were in pretrial detention or serving sentences for terrorism offenses because of their journalistic work’.”
The delegation reported that independence of the judiciary has been “thoroughly undermined”.
“On the second day of our visit, 718 people were detained, mostly from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Thousands of its members have been arrested over the past few years. Many have been subjected to threats by security forces, asked to spy, and when such requests have been denied, have been kidnapped and tortured. There have been forced disappearances, too.”
A representative from the Free Lawyers’ Association (ÖHD) told the delegation:
“The judiciary has never been independent; but in recent times, since the purges after the 2016 attempted coup, the judges basically take orders. Prosecutors and judges think, how would Erdoğan decide? Their decisions are not based on law.”
The whole of Turkey was becoming a prison, the delegation concluded.
“The Imralı system,” they were told, “has not only spilled over to other prisons but in fact spread throughout all of society.”
A spokesperson for the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) told the delegation: “Today the isolation is going beyond Öcalan. The Turkish republic, with its isolation of Öcalan, is aiming at preventing a democratic resolution.”
Quagliuolo said that many of the people the delegation interviewed saw the worsening human rights situation as an expression of Erdoğan’s political weakness, which had been accentuated by the economic crisis and also the regime’s poor management of the pandemic.
“The Kurdish movement won't give up. They asked us to spread the information we collected, because for them it is not easy to get the truth out to the world”.
The 2021 Imrali delegation comprised: Clare Baker, an international officer for Unite union in Britain; Baroness Christine Blower, former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Britain; Professor Radha D’Souza, a critical scholar, social justice activist, barrister and writer from India; Melanie Gingell, a barrister and lecturer from Britain; journalist Rahila Gupta; Ögmundur Jónasson, former Minister for Justice in Iceland; Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, British writer and scholar; Roza Salih, former Kurdish refugee who sought asylum in Scotland and is now a candidate for the Scottish National Party (SNP; Gianni Tognoni, a medical doctor and General Secretary of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal; and Laura Quagliuolo.