Turkey: Treatment of Kurds

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 10th April 2019.

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Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 11:00 am, 10th April 2019

I totally agree; this last year just gone, the Durham Miners’ Gala had an international theme of Freedom for Öcalan. Like many other struggles that we have had in the past, it shows that the trade union movement is stepping up to fight for what is just and right.

For the benefit of those watching proceedings who may not be aware of Abdullah Öcalan, he is the Kurdish leader and political philosopher who is currently imprisoned in Turkey. Last Thursday was his 70th birthday, but for 20 years of his life he has been held in prison by the Turkish authorities. Öcalan was abducted in February 1999 from Nairobi, Kenya, where he was in exile, in an international clandestine operation involving Turkish intelligence agencies. He was transported to the island prison, where he has been kept in harsh solitary confinement. He has been forbidden to contact his lawyer since 2011—I met his lawyer a month ago—and he has only been granted access to anyone twice since 2015. The conditions in which he is held violate not only Turkish law, but the European convention on human rights, which Turkey is obliged to follow as a member of the Council of Europe.

To protest these unlawful conditions, the then imprisoned MP for the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, Leyla Güven, began an indefinite hunger strike on 7 November. Leyla was imprisoned by the Turkish authorities following her critical remark on the Government’s bombing of Afrin in northern Syria, which she rightly described with detestation. She was a sitting MP, thrown in prison for doing her job and holding the Government to account. She was released 80 days later, but now, after almost 140 days, she is nearing death, suffering from nausea, fever, severe headaches, insomnia and unstable blood pressure. We have seen a set of elections in Turkey that are beyond what anyone could call fair and free, particularly in some of the Kurdish regions.

Leyla in Turkey and Imam here in the UK are not alone in their hunger strike. Since the end of last year, they have been joined by 8,000 political prisoners from across Turkey, and numerous activists in Europe, north America, the middle east have all joined Ms Güven in declaring indefinite hunger strikes. Many hunger strikers are now suffering from serious health problems, but refuse medical treatment until the isolation of Öcalan is lifted.

We are joined in the Public Gallery by three hunger strikers who are based here in London. If they will excuse my pronunciation—I will probably get it wrong—they are Ali Poyraz, Nahide Zengin, and Mehmet Sait Yılmaz, who are on their 27th day of hunger strike. It is awful to find oneself in the position where that is the only recourse to political voice, but I welcome them to Parliament today and I know that many MPs in this place, while not joining them in their methods, will be sympathetic and support their demands.

The human rights situation in Turkey has been progressively deteriorating since the breakdown of talks for the peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict between the Kurds and Turkish state in 2015, at which point the Turkish state began to engage in a policy of brutal oppression of the Kurdish population, imposing harsh 24-hour curfews in the south-eastern Kurdish region and committing countless human rights abuses—all this after Öcalan had spurned violence in favour of peaceful, political resolution. In Britain, we know that converting a violent protest to a peaceful one is not an easy road; it requires good faith and perseverance on all sides. The fact is that Turkey’s continue repression of Öcalan and the Kurds destroys any potential for a peaceful resolution for them and Turkey as a whole.

The situation was greatly exacerbated by the state of emergency that followed the failed coup in 2016, under which political opposition and trade union activity has largely been banned, and democratically elected politicians, Members of Parliament and members of the judiciary have been removed from office on the grounds of suspected affiliation to opposition activity. They have all been replaced with President Erdoğan’s AKP puppets.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has visited the notorious island where Öcalan is held, İmralı, and other political prisoners seven times since 1999. Very few of the improvements that it has called for have ever been implemented. The CPT’s last visit to the island was in 2016, and Turkey gave permission for the publication of its report only in 2018, two years later. The hunger strikers are demanding that the CPT be allowed to revisit İmralı island prison immediately and investigate the conditions of the prisoners there, to see if any of the improvements have been made.

I have been disappointed by the reaction to the growing concern. In January, the Council of Europe passed a resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in Turkey and the condition of the hunger strikers, as well as calling Turkey to authorise the immediate publication of the CPT’s reports. However, the resolution has been insufficient in putting pressure on Turkey to change its ways. The hunger strikers are calling for all possible pressure to be put on Turkey to end the isolation of Öcalan before the situation escalates and there are mass casualties.

What recent discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had—I am aware that the Minister covering for this debate is not the Minister for the middle east—with counterparts in Turkey on the treatment of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey and in particular on the conditions on İmralı island. Will he seek assurances from the Turkish authorities that Öcalan will be granted access to his lawyer in compliance with Turkish and international law? Will he, as a matter of urgency, seek to have the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reopen its investigation into İmralı island? Will the Government support the Welsh Assembly’s referral to the CPT on this matter, so that it has the backing of the whole of the British state? Will we ensure that our member of the CPT raises this issue in those committee meetings? Turkey is a NATO ally, but we must not allow a friendship to stop us demanding fair and just treatment of all citizens.

In Northern Ireland and other parts of the world, we have seen that we achieve lasting peace only if political leaders on all sides are given legitimacy, respect and a seat at the table to forge peace. The British Government must stand with the Kurdish people—as I have mentioned, we have an historic duty, as well as a current humanitarian and moral duty to do so—to seek the peace that they desperately deserve.