Turkey ends eight-year ban on lawyers visiting imprisoned PKK leader Ocalan

Turkey ends eight-year ban on lawyers visiting imprisoned PKK leader Ocalan
Turkey on Thursday lifted an eight-year ban on lawyer visits for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan after months of protests by Kurdish politicians, prisoners and activists.
3 min read
17 May, 2019
Ocalan was allowed a lawyer visit for the first time since 2011 in May [NurPhoto]

Turkey on Thursday lifted its longtime ban on lawyer visits for imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the justice minister said.

The decision marks a reversal of an eight-year policy of isolation met by protest by Kurds worldwide.

Turkey earlier this month allowed two lawyers to visit Ocalan for the first time since 2011, in a decision which many pundits say was motivated by the highly contentious election due to be held in Istanbul next month.

"The ruling that prevents meetings [with his lawyers] has been lifted and the opportunity to meet with him has been allowed," justice minister Abdulhamit Gul told reporters.

He added that visits could still be limited on security grounds.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is a Kurdish rebel militia which has been engaged in an on-off civil war with the Turkish state for 35 years.

It is classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

Ocalan was captured in Kenya two decades ago and extradited to Turkey, where he was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to a life sentence after the death sentence was abolished three years later.

Since then, the PKK leader has been held in near-total isolation on an island off Istanbul.

Ocalan’s visit with his lawyers on 2 May followed months of a hunger strike protesting against his isolation led by Kurdish politicians in Turkey but involving activists across the world.

Around 3,000 Kurdish prisoners have been on hunger strike since November, according to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Eight have killed themselves in protest, the HDP said, although Ocalan has since called for hunger strikes to not risk their health.

In a statement read by his lawyers this month, Ocalan appeared to offer an olive- branch to the Turkish government, calling for "Turkey's sensitivities" to be taken into account in Syria.

Turkey identifies the YPG, a Kurdish militia that controls large swathes of northern Syria and collaborated with the US to battle the Islamic State group, as an offshoot of the PKK.

One of Ocalan's lawyers, Ibrahim Bilmez, told AFP he had applied to visit Ocalan on Friday but was still awaiting a decision from the Turkish authorities.

"We are expecting them to adhere to the rules and accept our applications," he said.

The decision to allow lawyer visits for Ocalan - certainly controversial among many Turks - could be tied to an upcoming controversial re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election, analysts say.

While the initial election was lost by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, subsequent complaints by the party led to the country's official electoral authority declaring the cancellation of the vote and its subsequent re-run.

Analysts say Kurdish votes played a role in defeating Erdogan's party - the HDP did not field a candidate in Istanbul - and that allowing Ocalan visits could be a sign the government is trying to win over Kurdish voters.