Hunger striking for peace in Turkey

Dougie Gerrard.

By any measure, Leyla Güven is in a bad way. She is assailed by painful cramps, the result of a protein breakdown in her muscular tissue. Her blood pressure is critically low, and she is unable to walk unaided. She has a brain tumour, but can no longer ingest the medicine necessary to fight it.

The 15th of February marked the 100th day of Güven’s hunger strike, which she began after being imprisoned for criticising the Turkish invasion of Afrin, the westernmost region of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (known popularly as Rojava). Güven, a Kurd, is a member of the Turkish Parliament, representing the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and a former mayor of the southeastern town of Viranşehir. Her official charge was ‘terror-related’; a euphemism typical of a Turkish judiciary that has effectively criminalised any outspoken expression of Kurdishness. She was initially released after a judge found the charges against her to be baseless – Güven is, obviously, not a terrorist; it was her criticism of Turkish state-terrorism that led to her arrest – but was swiftly rearrested by a higher court. Due to the severity of her condition she was discharged from jail on January 25th, but has continued her strike at home, watched over by a near-permanent vigil of supporters.

In a remarkable display of solidarity, hundreds of Kurds across the world have joined Güven on hunger strike over the past three months. The main site of this protest has been the Turkish prison system: there are currently 291 Kurdish political prisoners on strike, including a number of HDP MPs (though this figure grows daily, and will likely be out-of-date by the time this article is published). These strikes have also swept across Europe, with a group of 14 activists in Strasbourg, including HDP MP Dilek Öcalan, having now been on hunger strike for 66 days. Imam Sis, a Kurd living in Newport, Wales, recently reached the sixtieth day of his strike, and there are numerous strikes on-going in Germany.

The strikers’ unified demand is an end to the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish political leader who has been imprisoned since 1999 on Imrali Island, a tiny scrap of land in the Marmara Sea. Since 2011, his seclusion has been interrupted only twice, and both times due to overwhelming public pressure – most recently last month, when he was allowed to briefly meet with his brother. At no point has he been permitted to see his lawyers. This is a kind of isolation so severe that it is unmatched anywhere on earth – even the U.S., not exactly known for its benevolence towards the incarcerated, doesn’t treat its prisoners like this. The ‘Mandela Rules’, the UN’s guidelines on confinement, dictate that no prisoner should be without human contact for more than 22 hours a day, over a period of 15 days. Turkey violates these rules every fortnight, to little or no international censure.

Given the length of the strikes and the vast numbers of people involved, the noisy absence of Western media coverage has been a source of constant frustration for those involved in the Kurdish movement. Güven has not warranted a single page in Britain’s major newspapers (save, peculiarly, the Daily Mail), and it took a letter from Angela Davis to the New York Times to get the American press to pay attention. This is all the more bewildering when considering the irresistible historical analogues of her story – like Bobby Sands, she was elected to Parliament while imprisoned, a fact noted by Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson during her unsuccessful attempt to visit Güven in jail. It is difficult to mount an effective solidarity campaign when no one knows who the object of their solidarity is.

Even where it is covered, reports of the strikes have been hampered by a lack of context. A BBC article following Güven’s release was welcome, but it neglected to mention that her strike would continue outside of jail, because securing her freedom was not the point of her protest. Crucially, the question of why ending Öcalan’s isolation is so important is elided. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask why hundreds would risk death in service of a demand as seemingly limited as an alteration in one man’s prison conditions. The connection isn’t made: the strikers’ implicit second demand is that the long-dormant peace negotiations with Turkey be reopened. Öcalan, who over ten million Kurds affirmed as their leader via a 2015 petition, has brokered a number of uneasy, impermanent ceasefires and peace treaties with Turkey. As in the past, he would be at the centre of any discussions. Ending his isolation is not of merely symbolic importance; it is a necessary precondition for a lasting peace.  

Güven’s 2018 imprisonment was not her first. She has been arrested a number of times: in 2000, for taking part in a demonstration; in 2007, for expressing solidarity with an incarcerated mayor; in 2009, as part of a broader crackdown on Kurdish politicians. Since the abortive 2016 coup against Erdogan, the political and legal precarity of Kurds in Turkey has intensified, to the extent that anyone associated with the HDP, an entirely peaceful and pluralistic party that opposed the coup, is vulnerable to arrest. The criminalisation of Kurdishness and the broader antidemocratic turn taken by Erdogan work in lockstep: new authoritarian techniques are beta-tested on the streets of Diyarbakir before being rolled out in Istanbul.

Political imprisonments are rife, and trials, when they happen, are rushed through the courts with only the thinnest patina of legal legitimacy. For instance, Selahattin Demirtaş, a former chairman of the HDP, was arrested in 2016 on terror charges related to an alleged involvement with the PKK. As usual, Erdogan justified his arrest with reference to the spectre of Kurdish separatism, ignoring A) that the PKK abandoned its quest for a separate state in 2004, and B) that Demirtaş has never had anything to do with the PKK. Despite being limply upbraided by the European Court of Human Rights, Turkish prosecutors are seeking a 142-year prison sentence. This move was followed by a sweeping crackdown last October, which saw the detention of 140 HDP members, and a month later by the arrest of 259 Kurdish Mukhtars (the elected heads of villages and neighbourhoods). This current wave of repression has much to do with the local elections scheduled for March 2019, with Erdogan looking to defang the Kurdish opposition before they arrive.

Finding precise figures on political prisoners in Turkey is difficult, given the opaque and secretive nature of Erdogan’s administration, but upwards of 50,000 people are in prison pending trial. Of this 50,000, many are Kurds, for whom Turkey is fast becoming an ‘intolerable regime’, as Güven wrote in a letter to the European Parliament last month. Erdogan’s unwillingness to tolerate Kurdishness at home is matched by a determination to destroy it abroad: he has amassed the Turkish army on its Syrian border, and is waiting for a fullscale invasion of Rojava to be greenlit by the U.S. This is the desperate, urgent context in which hundreds of Kurds have joined Güven on hunger strike, demanding an end to Öcalan’s isolation and the resumption of serious peace negotiations. The least we can do is listen to them.

Published Red Pepper February 2019.

Feature image: Photo via ANFenglish

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