The arrest of Merdan Yanardağ and the isolation of prisoners at İmralı island

Statement by HDP Foreign Affairs Spokespersons Feleknas Uca and Hişyar Özsoy30.06.2023

On Tuesday 27 June, Merdan Yanardağ, a well-known journalist and television editor, was remanded in custody for “praising crime and criminals” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation.” He has joined at least 52 other journalists and media workers in prison in Turkey, either under awaiting trial or convicted.

Yanardağ’s arrest was sparked by his comments in a discussion programme broadcast on TELE 1 – the television channel of which he is Editor in Chief. He was commenting on the possibility of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government initiating another “resolution process” with the Kurds, and quoted AKP MP Galip Ensarioğlu. Ensarioğlu had discussed the issue earlier in June, when it came up in pre-election allegations about possible government meetings with Mr Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been kept at the İmralı island prison since 1999. Ensarioğlu said that Öcalan was more sincere than the PKK in the resolution process. This prompted the following comments from Yanardağ:

“Öcalan is the longest serving political prisoner in Turkey. If normal execution laws were applied, he should be released, under house arrest, etc. The isolation imposed on Abdullah Öcalan has no place in the law. It must be lifted… But you are holding him hostage, you are negotiating with him. You are making threats through him. He cannot even meet his family, he cannot meet his lawyers. Can there be such a system of execution? Abdullah Öcalan is not someone to be taken lightly. He has almost become a philosopher in prison, because all he does is read.”

Yanardağ’s words caused outrage on social media, not just from the AKP and its supporters, but also from the İYİ Party, which was part of the opposition coalition but always careful to demonstrate a hard line concerning Kurdish issues. Yanardağ commented to a media outlet before his detention, saying that he had not intended to praise Öcalan but to criticise AKP hypocrisy and to say “how the penal execution law should be in a democratic country.”

In his criticism of Öcalan’s isolation, Yanardağ’ is echoing the opinion of international bodies on human rights. Öcalan’s imprisonment, which has now lasted for over twenty-four years, has always been the subject of criticism, but there has been almost no action in response. The European Court of Human rights criticised his trial and found it unfair. They also ruled that his sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole is in breach of his fundamental right to hope; but, rather than respond to this ruling, the Turkish government has imposed life sentences without parole on growing numbers of prisoners. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has written numerous reports on his situation, which were also endorsed in the reports of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). But, very few of these demands have been met by the government of Turkey. Many of these concerned his conditions of isolation and the restrictions on visits by family members, lawyers, and other contacts with the outside world. This isolation has only got worse. One action that the Turkish authorities did take in response to the CPT’s criticisms was to move some other prisoners into the prison, but contact between the prisoners is severely limited so this has mainly resulted in worse conditions for these prisoners, too. Öcalan and the other three prisoners now in İmralı have had no communication with the outside world since March 2021, when Öcalan was allowed a phone call with his brother that was cut short after a few minutes. In January 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committee demanded that Turkey end the isolation of all four İmralı prisoners.

Öcalan’s isolation is an overwhelming human rights issue, but it is also a political issue. Öcalan is recognised as their political leader by millions of Kurds in Turkey and beyond. Anyone who wants to see a genuine resolution to the Kurdish issue knows that his involvement would make crucial contributions in processes of peace building (as it happened during the resolution efforts between 2013 and 2015), and putting an immediate end to his isolation at the İmralı prison will be a vital first step.  

We invite the international community, first and foremost the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe and the United Nations, and everybody else interested in showing solidarity with the ongoing struggle for democracy and rights in Turkey, to condemn this unabashed attack on the freedoms of speech and press, and to raise their voice against such utterly unlawful isolation of Mr Öcalan and his fellow prisoners.