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The Mandela of the Middle East

The Mandela of the Middle East

First of all thanks to everyone who has taken part in or supported the work our unions are undertaking in the campaign to win freedom for Abdullah Öcalan who is a political prisoner in Turkey and who we have rightly described as “the Nelson Mandela of the Middle East”.

UK Labour movement working hard for Öcalan’s freedom

The UK Trade Union movement is working hard to win freedom for Öcalan and Unite has been proud to play a key role in this campaign and I believe has been instrumental in securing some improvements in regard to Öcalan’s incarceration.

Having been to Turkey and Kurdistan in February I have seen at first hand the repression that the Kurdish people have been under for a number of years now and the righteousness of the cause to win freedom for Öcalan.

As you will see from the report of the International Peace Delegation to Turkey and Kurdistan of which I was a member we had a full programme and we were able to meet a number of Human Rights organisations, Öcalan’s lawyers, trade unions, MPs. I was also privileged to meet with Leyla Guven MP (HDP) who was then into 100 days of the hunger strike to win justice for Öcalan.

Illegal isolation

Comrades Öcalan has been imprisoned on an island off the coast of Turkey in solitary confinement and was in isolation and has been on the Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara since 1999 at times in conditions of extreme isolation, for this and other reasons it’s clear he is the Mandela of the Middle East.

As the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, he was abducted in 1999 in Kenya and up until the last few months had had no contact with his lawyers since 2011 and had only recently met his brother.

This isolation contravenes international and Turkish law and we demanded a visit to the island but of course were refused.

Let me say something about Turkey.

Turkeys decent into authoritarianism

Turkey is turning from being a secular society with an outward-looking policy to being an inward-looking country dominated by a Right Wing government who not only have attacked the population of Kurdistan but have imposed in the area mass arrests, curfews and many human rights atrocities.

This has been exacerbated by the failed coup attempt in 2016 as a result of which trade unions and their members are discriminated against, public sector workers have been laid off, journalists and lawyers arrestedand all the indications from meetings in Istanbul, Ankara and Kurdistan, we saw that the situation had not got any better.

Erdogan’s assault on workers

From a trade union point of view, construction workers at the new Istanbul airport who have complained about Health & Safety violations, and there have been a number of fatalities on site, have been dismissed or have been arrested.

In 2017 the leader of the Turkish Rubber Workers Union was assassinated on his way to negotiations with an employer on behalf of his members.

We heard reports that if people apply for a Public Sector job, those people who are trade union members or who have relatives who are trade union members are discriminated against and don’t get the job.

We have heard reports of strikes being broken up by government forces and the police, agreements reached by unions are being ignored by employers and all this is against a background of pressure on human rights by the Right Wing government.

Civil resistance in Turkey

While we were in Turkey we were able to meet with the Peace Mothers, many of whose sons, in particular, have gone missing or are in hiding because of their political activity and it was most distressing to meet with Leyla who, at the time, was on hunger strike and, it seemed to our delegation, would soon have to be returned to hospital to be cared for.

There is no doubt that peace in the region can only be brought about by the release of Abdullah Öcalan. He is the key to negotiating a successful peace plan in the region and while he is kept on Imrali the possibility of that is non-existent.

However, there has been some good news. Because of the situation in Syria and international pressure, the Turkish government has taken the step of allowing Öcalan to meet with his lawyers and have now lifted that restriction so he can have more frequent contact.

The Mandela of the Middle East

However, that is not going to be enough. It is expedient of the Turkish government to do this and at any time they are liable to revert to a position of total isolation.

That is why we are campaigning as trade unions and through our international organisations to get Öcalan the freedom from his incarceration in Imrali.

One thing is clear we will not give up trying to win Öcalan’s freedom before it is too late and before we see more repression in Turkey.

Öcalan really is the Mandela of the Middle East and we know how long it took Mandela to be released from Robben Island.

Therefore I would ask you to read the report produced and support the Freedom for Öcalan campaign by following the website and regular tweets and comments in the social media.

This text is taken from a speech written for the Freedom for Öcalan Fringe Meeting – Unite Rules conference – 26 June 2019

How can you help the campaign?

With growing support in the trade union movement, devolved governments and the Parliamentary Labour Party the Freedom for Ocalan campaign is calling on trade unionists and activists to support the many local campaigns now running throughout the UK and Europe.

If you’re a member of a trade union it’s critical you support us by requesting your branch, regional or national trade union affiliate now.

With trade union support in the last twelve months we’ve been able to;

Members of political parties able to pass motions at a branch or constituency level, particularly Labour members can use this model motion. Alternatively, if you feel you are able you could make a one-off or regular donation to help the campaign.

By Tony Burke

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union, sits on the TUC General Council and Executive Council, Labour Party activist, Chair CTUF, Morning Star board and is Contributing Editor Left Foot Forward.

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