We are so engrossed with Brexit almost every hour of the day with the twenty-four hour cycle, our public world view has turned inwards, shrinking our horizons, as if nothing is happening in the wider world. The arrival of dinghies with a small number of refugees (labelled as migrants) caused a national panic led by the tabloids so that the navy had to mobilise to protect our shores against this invasion. And there is always our obsession with the world across the Atlantic with President Trump as the centre of the world and his slightest idiosyncrasies in tweets must always make it to our screens. Beyond that, our foreign policy dictates that we always find some time for any breaches by US-defined “rogue states” like Iran, or security threats North Korea and Russia, or possible some Chinese skullduggery. Our media remain generally silent as hundred of thousands of children are at risk of dying in Yemen, Palestinians being shot dead by snipers in Gaza, political prisoners in Egypt, Syrian refugees freezing away in Lebanon and refugees trapped in the slave camps of Libya. These would never be on the political agenda and thrust themselves into public consciousness.
What we see or hear is chosen for us in most cases giving us a moral uplift to show we are endowed with higher values. This is not to say that some cases by themselves are undeserving. The detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran is harrowing and she must be released. The story of the Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun now given a home in Canada after her courageous refusal to be deported from Thailand and her success in securing a UN refugee status also needs mentioning.
Last week, Nazanin has started a three day hunger strike to draw attention to her medical condition. Unfortunately, most British people have not heard of the Kurdish woman politician, Leyla Güven, whose life hangs by a thread. She has today completed 75 days of hunger strike today in Turkey. Güven is 55-year-old and she was imprisoned in January 2018 for speaking out against the Turkish state’s illegal invasion and occupation of the majority Kurdish region of Afrin in Rojava (northern Syria). During this military operation severe war crimes were committed and civilians were systematically targeted by Turkish-backed Syrian militias who raped, looted, kidnapped and killed with impunity. As a politician she is a legally elected Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, member of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), former mayor, and co-president of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), the largest civil society body in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. Leyla Güven faces over 31 years in prison for simply being critical of the Turkish regime.. Due to the state of emergency regulations imposed on the country after the attempted coup in 2016, Leyla Güven is the first case in Turkish history of a representative who was not released from jail upon being elected.
She started the hunger strike to protest against the Turkish government policy of isolation(solitary confinement) of political prisoners. In particular, she called for the end of isolation imposed on the Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan. At the third hearing of her case in a court in Diyarbakir on November 7, Leyla Güven said, “Today the politics of isolation on Mr Öcalan is not imposed on him alone, but on a people in his person. Isolation is a crime against humanity. I am a member of this people. I am starting an Öcalan indefinite hunger strike to protest the isolation on Mr Öcalan. I will not submit any defence to the court from now on. I will continue my protest until the judiciary ends its unlawful decisions and this politics of isolation is terminated. If need be, I will turn this protest into death fast.”
Abdullah Öcalan was kidnapped from Nairobi 20 years ago and incarcerated in the Imrali island prison in the sea of Marmara close to Istanbul. There have been long periods of isolation imposed on him during the last two decades. No one from his family, his doctors, his lawyers or friends have been allowed to visit him for the last three and half years. This is against international principles - (Mandela rules) - agreed by the United Nations in 2015 which forbid solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day without human contact for a period that exceeds 15 consecutive days. Combined with the violation of his rights to receive his lawyers and family members and the systematic obstruction of communication with the outside world, the isolation imposed on him is akin to mental torture.
International solidarity builds
Over the past weeks, solidarity hunger strikes have spread inside and outside prisons across several countries with the participation of more people all around the world with the motto “Leyla Güven’s demand is our demand”. In addition to political prisoners in Turkey and Kurdistan, Kurds and their friends have launched solidarity hunger strikes, demonstrations and actions all around the world. Close to 200 prisoners, both women and men, are currently on hunger strike in more that 20 Turkish prisons. Young Kurdish activist Imam Sis has entered the 35th day of his hunger strike in Wales, while Nasir Yagiz in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan reached day 61. Other hunger strikes are taking place in the autonomous Kurdish refugee camp Makhmour, in different places in majority Kurdish areas of Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Armenia. In Europe, fifteen Kurdish activists and political figures, including former MP Dilek Öcalan, have begun an indefinite hunger strike in Strasbourg to pressure the European Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to fulfil its duties and address their single and basic demand to the institution: to pay a visit to check on the condition of Abdullah Öcalan.
An international call has been issued to demand an immediate end to the solitary confinement of Öcalan and other political prisoners in Turkey. Among the first signatories are well-known personalities like Immanuel Wallerstein and David Graeber, as well as activists, thinkers, trade unionists, feminist writers, MPs, MEPs, senators, researchers, journalists, historians and artists from around the world. Angela Davis who was imprisoned in the 1970s when she joined a hunger strike to protest against prison conditions has called for the release of Leyla Güven. South African lawyers and political figures, including spokespersons for the National Assembly, who actively participated in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela, have drawn parallels between Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle and imprisonment, and the Kurdish freedom struggle led by Öcalan.
These hunger strikes brought back brought back to me the memories of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes in the 1980s which led to the death of Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers because of the refusal by the Thatcher government to give them political status. The treatment of Irish prisoners, their protests, their suffering and the death of Bobby Sands was superbly captured by Steve McQueen in his prize winning dramatic film ‘Hunger'(2008). For the republicans the memories of these are still fresh to immediately show solidarity with the Kurdish hunger strikers. Last week, Martina Anderson, Sinn Féin MEP met with the family of Leyla Güven, as well as her legal representatives, but was denied access to the prison in Diyarbakir where she is being held. At a rally in Derry, after returinng from Turkey, she called on the international community to demand the release of Abdullah Ocalan and Leyla Güven.
“The Kurdish people want the international community to back their demand to end the isolation. They believe the end of isolation will assist and advance their peace process. As we stand here tonight and look towards the H-Block monument it is important that we remember Leyla Güven and all the other Kurdish hunger strikers. Their resolve and determination is just as strong as Bobby Sands’ and Raymond McCartney’s was at that time.”
This massive solidarity amongst the Kurdish people comes from the deep respect and admiration for him as a political leader, thinker and visionary. Öcalan is overwhelmingly recognized as the chief negotiator and representative of the Kurdish people in the peace talks with the Turkish state. He is the initiator of several ceasefires and initiatives to work towards an end to the conflict. By isolating him, Turkey is actively sabotaging any chance of returning to the negotiating table and bringing an end to the violence. The international signature campaign for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan, concluded in 2015, managed to gather an astonishing 10.3 million signatories. Apart from drawing up a roadmap for peace ten years ago, Öcalan is the advocate of Democratic Confederalism, a unique political and social proposal that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism. From fighting for a nation state of Kurdistan, he is advocating a vision whereby the diverse ethnic and religious groups could work together within the existing boundaries of states to build a democratic framework from the grassroots hence overcoming the fragmentation that exists across all the nation amongst different ethnic groups. At the heart of this is the liberation of women from patriarchy by active participation in all walks of life and developing an economy that puts ecological preservation and sustainability as central to all activity.
The roots of Turkish -Kurdish conflict
The roots of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict lie deep in history of the region. The defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following WWI was followed by the carving up of the region into nation states such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Jordan by the mandate powers, Britain and France. At this most critical juncture in world history millions of Kurds were denied a nation state and found themselves fragmented across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The emergence of the Turkish nations state was marked by the Armenian genocide in 1915 and the brutal suppression of Kurds as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundation of Turkish ethno-nationalism, denying them political autonomy and respect for their language and cultural identity. Since 1925, Kurdish uprisings and resistance were violently suppressed and Kurdish social advancement blocked. In the 1970s there was a growing radicalisation of the Kurds with the founding of several clandestine parties based on socialist ideology. The relentless persecution of all forms of Kurdish political expression persuaded many activists to take up arms against the state. The PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was established in 1978 under the leadership of Öcalan. With the military coup in Turkey in 1980, the PKK shifted its cadres and bases to Lebanon and Syria from where it launched its first attacks on Turkish security forces. This low intensity war reached its most violent phase in the 1990s. Over 40,000 people were killed in the conflict, including PKK militants, Turkish soldiers, pro-state paramilitaries and (above all) Kurdish civilians. Over thee million were displaced from the rural areas to towns and cities. The European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey for thousands of human right abuses. Many of the judgements are related to systematic execution of Kurdish civilians, torturing, forced displacement , destruction of villages, arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances and murder of Kurdish journalists, activists and politicians.
But this was not the end of the ‘Kurdish problem’ for the Turkish state, as the resistance helped to catalyse a broader political awakening. Despite facing intense state repression, pro-Kurdish democratic movements were continually carving a space on the electoral stage articulating the demands of the Kurdish population. Every political party and civil society movement that rose to carry the banner of freedom and democracy since the 1990s was suppressed by state violence and national security laws both at national and local level.
Kurdish electoral breakthrough and Erdoğan’s revenge
A peace process and accompanying ceasefir was initiated by Öcalan in 2012 but brought to an end in Summer 2015 by Erdoğan. The birth of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in 2012 was to provide immense hopes for the democratic left blocs in Turkey and posed the greatest challenge to Erdoğan’s supremacy. In 2014 local elections, the HDP’s regional offshoot the DBP (Democratic Regions Party) made significant gains in the south east. It won 2 metropolitan municipalities and 97 municipalities. In the 7 June 2015 elections, it polled an unprecedented 13 percent with its support rising throughout Turkey. It denied Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) an absolute majority in the Parliament with its vote falling by 9 per cent. This obstacle in the path of his supremacy infuriated Erdoğan and he set out to build a new alliance with ultra-nationalist MHP (Kemalist Republican Party) based on the repression of the Kurdish movement. The Turkish army went on the offensive against the PKK in the borderlands of Iraq and the renewed conflict created a febrile atmosphere with funerals of soldiers and policemen broadcast on the TV. Against this backdrop, he engineered a fresh election on 1 November 2015 to secure a majority. The HDP lost ground but still secured a vote just above 10 percent to have deputies in Parliament. The Chair of the HDP Selhattin Demirtaş and his co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ detained shortly afterwards to face terrorism-related charges.
Beginning with 2016, the Turkish army targeted the Kurdish urban strongholds,, reducing much of Diyarbakir’s old city to rubble and inflicting similar destruction of Sirnak, Cizre and Nusaybin. According to UNHCR, Turkish forces have killed hundreds of civilians and are guilty of summary executions, torture and rape. More than half a million Kurds have been driven from their homes.
Following the botched coup in the summer of 2016, Erdoğan exploited the opportunity to crush dissent by declaring a state of emergency initially for three months which has been extended several times. A decree passed in September allowed the government to remove elected mayors in the south east and replace them with appointed officials. 85 mayors from HDP’S sister party have been imprisoned. Charges levied against HDP politicians range from ‘carrying out propaganda for a terror organisation’ to membership of the PKK itself. Approximately 6,000 HDP members are now under arrest. Erdoğan government targeted civil society initiatives and the pro-Kurdish media. A group of more that 1,100 academics who signed a petition urging a peaceful approach to the Kurdish question have suffered persecution and administrative sanctions, with 360 removed from their posts so far. The daily Ozgur Gundem has been shut down. HDP-supporting TV stations have been forced off the air. 11,000 Kurdish and left-wing teachers, who belong to the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Egitim-Sen), have been accused of being PKK supporters and threatened with dismissal. More than 250,000 people have lost their jobs.
In spite of all the repressive measures that Erdoğan has imposed on Kurdish politics, the success of the political breakthrough by the HDP will resonate for a long time. The Kurdish organisations have revived a form of politics that few people in Turkey thought possible and stimulated the desire for a peaceful multicultural and egalitarian society in Turkey.
Erdoğan seized the high moral ground on the horrific murder of Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul through carefully manipulating information to reveal the involvements of the Saudi death squad. Yet his record in Turkey is one of unbridled despotism cracking down on journalists, imprisoning eighty one by the end of 2016, a third of the world-wide total of 259, accusing them of anti-state activity. It is well known that Turkish state security forces routinely inflict torture on their prisoners to obtain confessions.
Western powers collaborate with Erdoğan’s despotism
The Western governments have steadfastly looked away at the horror in Turkey for a long time. They have a deep rooted strategic relationship with Turkey at all levels including trade, diplomacy, military and intelligence services. Turkey became a member of NATO in 1952 and hosts 24 NATO bases making it the eastern anchor NATO power. The massive Incirlik base in the Adana province close to Syria is used by the US-led coalition forces as a launch pad for raids on ISIS and is NATO’s largest nuclear weapons storage facility.
More recently, for the EU, Erdoğan has provided an invaluable service for warehousing refugees deported from Europe and controlling their flow by deploying his machinery of repression in exchange for a deal worth billions of Euros. The banning of the PKK under anti-terrorism legislation in the UK, EU and US has supplied cover for the Turkish state to associate all Kurdish political and social movements with terrorism and use the state security apparatus and courts to deny Kurds political and social freedoms. It also enables the counter-terrorism apparatus in Western countries to criminalise diaspora Kurdish communities for solidarity with the struggles of their compatriots in their homelands.
Western double standards are laid bare and cannot be defended if public reasoning were to prevail. The mass media propaganda and disinformation allows our governments to get away with these. The acceptance of Kurdish rights and the inclusion of Kurds into a democratic polity is the litmus tests for Turkey and Europe. The delisting of PKK as a terrorist organisation is one of the most important steps that needs to be taken. Although the Belgian Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Appeal Court in 2018, the decision of the latter that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation but ‘a party to an armed conflict as defined by and subject to international humanitarian law’, did for the first time set a legal precedent that will need to be revived in the EU and UK.
In Britain, what is needed is a change in our foreign policy to tilt it towards peace and conflict resolution rather than waging perpetual war and weapon sales. Such a policy would also bring under control and tightly regulate the arms industry and the security state. It will support the UN to play a greater role in resolving conflicts. The current situation whereby the US excludes the UN from dealing with the situation in the Middle East is totally unacceptable. Given its record, the Tory government will never undertake such a transformation in our foreign policy. Only a Corbyn-led government can bring about such a change.
Meanwhile, international solidarity for the Kurdish hunger strikers and for reedom must be put at the forefront by progressive social forces in Britain. It is good to see the GMB, Unite and other trade unions taking an initiative to set up a ‘Freedom for Öcalan’ campaign. Our demands should be heard loud and clear
Free Öcalan now!
Free Leyla Güven now!
Free all the political prisoners now!
Acknowledgement: I have used two main sources for facts and part of the narrative in crafting this article. I would like to give credit to Dilar Dirikand Cengiz Gunez for their analysis on this issue.