“I am the lucky one”, the co-chair of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) tells us, “I’m an MP so I have immunity”. But he will still face charges. Everyone else around the table has either been to prison, is in the middle of a trial, or is facing prison sentences.
This isn’t exceptional. It is the norm in Bakur (North Kurdistan – the Kurdish majority region of Turkey). In every meeting we go to, in every interview we conduct, eventually we discuss what sentences people are facing or have already served.
Everyone is charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation”. But these are not terrorists. These are lawyers, journalists, MPs, co-op members, and human rights activists. Their crime is being Kurdish and supporting radical democracy in the face of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fascistic regime.
And while this is nothing new – ever since my first trip to the region in 2011 as an election monitor, I’ve been struck by the fact that there is no safe position to take if you support the Kurdish struggle and oppose the ruling government – there are signs things are getting worse.
This was my sixth trip to Bakur since 2011. Several friends I’ve met on previous trips are now in prison, are under investigation, or have escaped the country. This most recent delegation was made up of radical journalists, including three of us from The Canary, the Kurdistan Solidarity Network, and defendant and prisoner solidarity organisations. Our aims were to learn from a struggle that inspires us politically, to connect our work, and to amplify the voices of those facing constant repression from the Turkish state.
There are signs in Amed (Diyarbakir) that the Turkish state is feeling more confident. In the old city of Sur, small, out of reach Turkish flags and pictures of Erdoğan – who appears to love having his face on every lamppost – have been replaced by bigger banners. Most of the police cordons have gone. There is no longer an armored car parked permanently on the corner of one of the main squares.
In 2015, residents of Sur declared autonomy. The Turkish state responded with deadly force. Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson reported on the situation in Red Pepper in 2016:
The police and military are using every kind of violence against the Kurds. They are using tanks and heavy armoured vehicles. They have flattened houses, historical places, mosques. They use helicopters and technological weapons, night vision binoculars and drones. They don’t let families get to the bodies of youths who were killed. Corpses remain on the streets for weeks.
As people on several trips have told me, the Turkish state also used the excuse to bulldoze the area and concrete over evidence of the war crimes committed. Old houses have been replaced with new builds. Those displaced were given less than market value prices for their homes and are unable to afford to move into the new houses the government has built. This was deliberate. Erdoğan wants to change the make-up of Sur. I’m told that government officials, police, and military are all given discounts if they want to buy these new houses.
During my last trip in February 2020, these new builds were still closed to public access. We could only view them from the city’s historic walls or through gaps in fences. Now they’re open. But they’re eerily quiet. Row upon row of empty houses and deserted streets. A literal ghost town when you know the horrors that have been concreted over to create them.
There are other signs of gentrification around Sur. New cafes have opened up; a once bombed-out deserted hotel is now open and boasts a Starbucks. A massive poster for Burger King is displayed on one of the main streets. As one person tells me, these are all ways in which the Turkish state is trying to crush the spirit of Sur. But despite years of war, curfew, displacement, and now gentrification, that spirit is still strong.
Force still dominates
While the military and police presence is diminished, it’s still felt and impossible to ignore. One night, walking back to our hotel, we see a police operation with a balaclava-clad man wielding a semi-automatic on a street corner. On another night, two of our delegation are stopped and searched by the police. No explanation is given. Local residents tell us this is just what happens when people are out at night.
These are just minor glimpses into the everyday reality for people who live in the region. Erdoğan might be trying various tactics to eradicate Kurdish resistance, but sheer force still dominates.
The power of women
Women’s rights are central to the Kurdish Freedom Movement. As I wrote after attending a TJA (Free Women’s Movement) conference in Amed in 2020:
There’s a women’s revolution taking place in the Middle East. Not just in Rojava (the mostly Kurdish part of northern Syria), where images and stories of the brilliant and brave female fighters against Daesh (Isis/Isil) have captured international headlines, but in Bakur too. Under the increasingly dictatorial and fascistic government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, women’s rights are being eroded at a national level. In January, for example, a so-called “marry-your-rapist” bill was introduced, meaning men who rape women can avoid punishment by marrying their victims. Meanwhile, women are regularly attacked with the police showing little interest in investigating.
But women are fighting back. And the Kurdish women’s movement is at the forefront of this fightback. Lipservice isn’t just paid to women’s equality in the Kurdish freedom movement; equality isn’t something that can be sorted after other struggles are won – it’s a central foundation that is visible in every aspect of organising. And it shows. Not just with the women at the conference but in the movement’s political structures. The HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) has ‘co-chairs’ to ensure there’s equal representation for women across the party.
The Turkish state is scared of the power of women. The TJA states that its “first target was the women’s foundations”. Ayşe Gökkan, the former spokesperson of the TJA, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in October. She was prevented from defending herself in Kurdish at her trial. Former HDP MP and DTK co-chair Leyla Güven was sentenced to 22 years in prison in December 2020.
One of the women we met this time at the TJA had just been released from nine years in prison; another had served a six-year sentence.
“If you are Kurdish the way is the prison”, they tell us. This is certainly a sentiment Ayşe would agree with. When we last interviewed her in the gardens of the DTK offices – offices now closed by the state – she told us:
Prisons in Kurdistan have a special importance in our history of resistance. Prisons became education centres because so many people were imprisoned. Our resistance started in the jails. The people inside the jails started to organise the people outside the jails.
However, the TJA tell us the situation is worse for women:
The system is male dominant and that affects the cases. We have male friends and we are in the same struggle but because the system is male dominant we’re accused of being women and Kurdish while they are just accused of being Kurdish. That’s why it’s more hard for women. The women’s punishment is always more than men. The decisions are not equal with the law. They give decisions depending on the political situation. women are faced with lots of abuse, some faced with sexual abuse, torture, some other political intimidation. We have friend who is sentenced and faced with sexual abuse in prison.
The Turkish state is also trying to crush this prison resistance. At a prisoner solidarity organisation, we are told that Erdoğan is experimenting with different types of prisons to see which one works best, including increasing isolation for prisoners. The government is currently undertaking a massive prison expansion plan, spending billions despite the economy collapsing. The TJA tells us that women are punished for Kurdish dancing and singing.
While we’re in Amed, we hear of the death of Garibe Gezer. Garibe committed suicide after being sexually assaulted and held in a padded cell. But as people make clear to us, she was killed by the Turkish state. This was reiterated in a statement made outside the Bar Association by the HDP, the Democratic Regions Party, Peace Mothers, and Lawyers for Freedom Association:
We have lost Garibe as a result of the penal execution system, which is established with the aim of full isolation and killing every day, and its practices and as a result of the physical-sexual assaults.
Release sick prisoners
Other campaigns are focussing on the condition of sick prisoners. On the day we attend a press conference for sick prisoners at the Bar Association, we hear news that two died on 15 December. Both had cancer. According to data from the Human Rights Association, there are currently 1,605 ill prisoners in jail, with 604 of them classed as “seriously sick”. Since the start of 2020, 59 prisoners have died of their illness.
HDP spokesperson Ebru Günay described the situation:
The prisons of a country are the mirrors of their democracy. Unfortunately, the prisons of Turkey have turned into houses of death. Only in the last week, two ill prisoners have lost their lives in prison.
People are also campaigning for the release of Aysel Tuğluk. Aysel has been in prison since 2016 and has dementia. She is:
the first woman who co-chaired a political party in the history of Kurdish political parties and the only woman who faced a political ban as she was banned from politics after the Democratic Society Party was closed. She is also a lawyer, a human rights defender and a politician who has devoted her whole life to the Kurds’ struggle for freedom and equality that will culminate in an honorable peace.
Despite her illness, and an independent medical report saying she should be released, she is still imprisoned. People are ensuring she is not alone, though, as the statement made outside the Bar Association makes clear:
Aysel Tuğluk or all other captives are not alone. There is a powerful women’s organization behind them. Women’s solidarity and unity will keep on defending the politics of keeping alive.
Resistance is life
There’s a saying in Kurdish – resistance is life – berxwedan jiyane – and despite the sadness, despite the repression, this spirit was still evident in every meeting. Despite decades of repression, people are not only still fighting back, but they are fighting for a radically democratic, anti-capitalist, and pro-feminist society.
And while we’re a long way from facing the excesses of the Turkish state in the UK, we are facing the most draconian crackdown on dissent we’ve seen in generations. Our friends are in prison for fighting back against police violence. On 17 December, Ryan Roberts was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the 21 March Kill The Bill demo in Bristol. He will spend a decade behind bars. As Tom Anderson wrote in The Canary:
Ryan – along with his fellow demonstrators – fought back against the police’s violence, racism, and misogyny. The actions of the demonstrators on 21 March were part of the same struggle as the actions of people fighting back against state violence around the world, and we should be proud of them.
The police bill will criminalise many more of us. The struggles are different, but there are many parallels.
These struggles will continue. And whether it’s fighting back against our increasingly authoritarian UK state or standing in solidarity with our Kurdish comrades, our struggles are connected, and international solidarity is powerful.
Resistance is life.
Featured image via The Canary
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