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Sere Giran: Being a Kurd in the Turkish Prison

[Hasan Kaçar. Image via] [Hasan Kaçar. Image via]

Şerê Giran*: Being a Kurd in the Turkish Prison 

22 October 2013

12:30pm: Cemil Bayık, KCK (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, Group of Communities in Kurdistan) Executive, declares that the ten-month-long peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement have come to a halt. 

12:48pm: PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, Kurdistan Worker’s Party) leader Abdullah Öcalan—sentenced to life in prison by Turkish courts, and held in solitary confinement in an island prison called Imrali Cezaevi since 1999—communicates via his brother: “If the Turkish state authorities do not visit me once again (concerning the peace negotiations), I suppose this indicates that peace talks are over for them, and thereby it is over for us too.” (Özgür Gündem)

30 September 2013

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announces the government’s new democratization package. The package also contains amendments regarding the Kurdish Question in Turkey. Kurdish circles in social media declared the package void.

3 January 2013

Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Türk, pro-Kurdish BDP (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, Peace and Democracy Party) members of the Turkish Parliament, visit Imrali Island Prison to meet with Abdullah Öcalan. This visit is considered to be the landmark initiating the so-called peace talks between the Turkish authorities and Abdullah Öcalan.

18 November 2012

In response to the call of Abdullah Öcalan, Kurdish political prisoners end their massive hunger strike, which they started on 12 September 2012. The strike was declared to protest the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan, the ban on legal defense and education in Kurdish, and prison conditions.

October 2012

Hasan Kaçar—sentenced to life in prison for being a member of the PKK—is on a hunger strike in Rize Prison. Despite unbearable bone pains (he is a long-time sufferer from ankylosing sponylitis, a severe rheumatic disease), and despite the objections of his family and his comrades in the prison, Hasan is on a hunger strike. Yet neither resistance, nor sickness, nor the prison conditions that turn his sick body into a self-torturing device, is new to him. 

It is the early 2000s. Hasan is a dynamic youngster, associated with the Hakkari branch of the then-pro-Kurdish legal party, DEHAP (Demokratik Halk Partisi, Democratic People’s Party). The Turkish police take him into custody a couple of times. Police threaten him in jail: “We see you around all the time. Don’t ever think that you’ll get away with such minor custodies. Once you turn eighteen, we will take you and lock you up for good.”

Now Hasan is nineteen. The year is 2003. One dark night, at three in the morning, the police raid Hasan’s home. Hasan is accused of throwing a sound bomb into a public building. Turkish police blockade Hasan’s house. That night, only his three younger sisters and little brother are at home. Special anti-terror forces armed with machine guns leave nowhere unsearched: the pages of books, closets, mattress piles, carpet underlays, every little hole....Hasan is not home. Anti-terror forces build a virtual police station at Hasan’s home: until Hasan is captured, there is no way out of the house for the members of household; anyone who happens to get in is held there by force. The police threaten Hasan’s little sisters and brother, as well as his other relatives: “Wherever he is, find and bring him to us! Or none of you can get out of this house. Your elder brothers will lose their jobs! We will become a thorn in your flesh! Do not ever dare to call lawyers! You will find him and bring him to us!”

A couple of days after the police raid, Hasan is arrested. On a piece of official paper, signed at a Turkish police station, writes his statement. He admits to throwing a sound bomb, and to some other, latterly associated accusations. At that time, Hasan’s family is, in their own terms, apolitical. They know neither how to get a good lawyer, nor the ways to deal with incessant police threats. Legal proceedings last for years. The verdict is read in 2008: Hasan Kaçar is convicted and given a life sentence.

Hasan has been in prison since 2003.

He is initially kept at Muş Prison, then transferred in turn to Bitlis, Van, Rize, and Istanbul Metris Prisons. While he is in Van, he starts suffering serious health problems. Severe prison conditions do not leave him any room for being free of sickness. The unrelieved pain he suffers leaves his body out of breath, sleepless. The new communication ban implemented by the prison authorities keeps him totally away from his family, even from seeing them within prison walls. Hasan is exposed to every sort of dishonorable conduct by prison guards….He writes dozens of petitions to prison authorities, demanding an end to these unacceptable, inhumane prison conditions. All remain pending. On 6 September 2007, in protest of all this oppression, Hasan takes his blanket, wraps it around his body, and sets it on fire.

Five years later…Hasan’s wounds have healed, leaving patches of burn marks on his skin. The year is 2012. Kurdish political prisoners start a massive hunger strike. Hasan is also on a hunger strike, among the second group to begin. He hasn’t eaten for thirteen days. He hasn’t taken his medication. His face is pale, his body crumpled. His comrades demand that he end his strike: his body is simply not healthy enough to bear hunger for who knows how long. His family is anxious, waiting. Brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins cannot eat either. No food is fixed at homes. The hunger strike by the first group of prisoners hits its forty-fifth day. And yet there is no sign pointing to an honorable end in sight. There is no indication that the government will take any favorable steps to meet the demands soon—soon enough to end the strike before the swiftly approaching first death. Hasan is furious. He cannot bear the scene that he sees around him. It is as if everyone is waiting for a dead body to open its ears to the voice of the Kurdish cause that he whole-heartedly believes in and resists for. Hasan contemplates: “if what they wait for is a dead body….If what it takes is a dead body to have them hear, and to respond to the scream of this just cause, I can give it to them.” He takes his medications, but this time, it is to end the hunger strike.

Hasan’s liver fails. He is hospitalized. It takes a long, tense ride for his family to get to the hospital in Rize. After arduous efforts, they finally get permission to see Hasan in the hospital room. Hasan’s younger sister Asiye is worried, yet excited. She will be in the same room with Hasan for the first time in nine years. Just before she gets into the room, the Turkish soldier accompanying her pronounces: “Please, no Kurdish inside!” Asiye objects in vain: “But Kurdish is not banned in Turkey anymore. I don’t say it; the President and Prime Minister say so.” The soldier doesn’t even listen. Afraid that her objections may prevent her from seeing Hasan, Asiye helplessly succumbs to soldier’s order. But she has a request: Hasan shouldn’t even notice that she has agreed to this ban on Kurdish. The soldier and Asiye enter the room. Hasan lies in a glass room, alone. Both his hands and his feet are handcuffed to the bed frame, and his body is tied to the mattress. He can move only one of his hands. At first sight, Hasan doesn’t recognize Asiye. Asiye, unsure about how to communicate with Hasan within a three-minute restriction, holds his hand. Hasan begins talking, silently, slowly. He speaks in Kurdish though: “Çawan î? Baş î?” Asiye responds, telling him that she is well, and she wants him to be well too. All is quickly said in Kurdish. Just before she finishes her words, Asiye feels the soldier’s finger tip on her shoulder. “Haven’t I told you not to speak in Kurdish! Please, no Kurdish!” Hasan’s eyes burn with anguish and anger. He nods to Asiye: “Get out!”

Hasan’s condition is serious. They transfer him to a hospital in a bigger city, Trabzon. Now the family keeps its watch in front of another “high-security” hospital room. They are interrogated by each policeman and soldier passing by the hall: “Who are you? Do you think the same way as he does?” Police also “inform” the family about the necessary precautions that need to be taken during their stay in Trabzon: “You shouldn’t wander around the city, except the places designated by us. People may lynch you. Don’t get us into trouble with anyone!” Asiye has connections with various NGOs in Trabzon, but she does not call any of them. She simply does not want to put them at risk either. Not having a place to stay even for a night, Hasan’s family leaves Trabzon the same day that they arrive. 

Just after her return from Trabzon, Asiye risks being a target of Hasan’s harsh reaction, and writes a petition to the President of Turkey, explaining how it is impossible for Hasan to survive prison conditions, and asking for his release. A petition written as a last resort, without the knowledge and consent of Hasan…a(nother) petition still pending… 

October 2013

It has been a couple of weeks since the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the government’s democratization package; ten months since the peace talks between Turkish authorities and the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan started; eleven months since the Kurdish political prisoners’ massive hunger strike—generally considered to give way to the peace negotiations—was ended. 

Hasan Kaçar is in Istanbul Metris R-type Prison, sitting in a wheelchair. His weak, insufferably aching body still could not slow down his uncompromising resistance. Yet the current political conjuncture in Turkey and Kurdistan presents him with an insoluble dilemma. Yes, a strong public awareness campaign may lead to his release, to a proper treatment of his sickness, hence to an end of his intolerable pain. And yet he does not want a campaign organized around his own name, around his own suffering body. Such a campaign would make it seem as if it were the individual tragedy of a sick inmate, as if all that he and his family have gone through is independent of the decades-long, collective struggle that Kurds have waged against the situation in Kurdistan…

Asiye is in search of a solution that would have both Hasan and other sick prisoners released. She visits every Turkish authority, every NGO, every politician that she can reach. She hopes: “If I find a way for Hasan, maybe we can follow the same path for other sick prisoners too.”

More than eight thousand Kurdish political prisoners are in Turkish prisons: 154 of them are nearing death, 526 of them are sick….Thousands of Kurdish families are in front of Turkish prison gates. They are waiting despite freezing cold and burning hot weather; despite poor economic conditions that make prison visits unaffordable to many of them; despite all sorts of humiliating treatment they receive from Turkish authorities….Rumors of an upcoming hunger strike are on the street. Forthcoming local elections are on the agenda of politicians. Questions about the prospects of peace negotiations are in the newspapers. Have the peace talks come to a halt? Is the war going to start again? Are there going to be new clashes, new guerilla and soldier deaths?

But where are those voices asking other questions in a silent conscience? In order to have the Turkish authorities free sick prisoners, do we have to wait till a dead body triggers a pang in the mainstream public conscience? In order for political prisoners to have their voices heard, do they have to go on a death fast? Why do those who cheer this last eight-month-long period without guerilla and soldier deaths as the biggest achievement of the peace negotiations say or do nothing significant for the freedom of Kurdish political prisoners, some of whom are facing death? What is a negotiation? What is peace? What is war? What is freedom?

* Heavy war/struggle (in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish)

[An earlier version of this article was published in Turkish on T24. The English translation is by the author. For more information about Hasan Kaçar, and to sign a letter of support, click here.]

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