[This statement was submitted to Jadaliyya by the author, Yusuf İba, an exiled Kurdish journalist and a hunger striker currently based in Toronto, Canada. Iba’s statement on hunger strikes by Kurdish prisoners and activists provides a critical view of the current political situation in Turkey. The ongoing hunger strikes can be understood within the wider context of political resistance; they are part of a protest tradition that goes back to Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strikes in Diyarbakir Military Prison after the 1980 coup d'etat, and hunger strikes against high-security prison legislation in 1996 and early 2000s. This tradition was taken up again in 2012, when hunger strikers demanded the right to speak in Kurdish in court, the lift of Abdullah Ocalan’s isolation, and the initiation of a dialogue between Ocalan and the government, culminating in the most recent attempt to start a peace process.]
A hundred and twenty-five days ago, on 13 January 2019, I started an indefinite and terminal hunger strike in the Toronto Kurdish Community Center. As a Kurdish journalist facing severe criminal charges due to my efforts to disclose human right violations in Turkey, I have had to flee from Turkey and seek refuge in Canada. However, despite my own persecution, soon after I arrived in Canada, I joined thousands of other activists and journalists in Turkey and around the globe to protest and bring an end to the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish politician and the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Ocalan, who is serving life in prison, has now spent years in complete isolation.
Last November, Ms. Leyla Güven, an MP from the People’s Democratic Party in Turkey, launched an indefinite and terminal hunger strike in support of Ocalan. Since then, more than five thousand political prisoners in Turkey and twenty-five activists across the world have joined her to protest the isolation imposed on Ocalan, the ill-treatment of Kurdish prisoners, and the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey.
Ocalan’s solitary confinement has become a symbol of the systematic rights violations against Kurdish people, as well as the erosion of the rule of law in Turkey. For years, Turkish authorities have been denying the rights of Kurdish political prisoners like Ocalan to access legal representatives, communication with the outside world, and even minimal family visitation, despite the fact that these rights have been granted and guaranteed by both the Turkish law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Our hunger strike, therefore, must be seen as a call for Turkish authorities to follow both their own and international laws.
To understand our protest, one needs some brief social and political context. Since the Kurdish people established their own local administrations and self-defense units to protect the Rojava (Western Kurdistan) region in Northern Syria, Turkish authorities have sharply increased their anti-Kurdish aggression, as well as their support to armed Salafist Islamist groups in Syria and Turkey. As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advanced to the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Kobane in September and October of 2014, Turkish authorities closed the border crossing with the city and left tens of thousands of civilians at their mercy. Despite Turkey’s active support of the Salafist Islamist groups, which were aggressively targeting Kurdish people in Syria, the Kurdish people staged a heroic resistance and defeated ISIS. While the Kurds were waging an epic war in Rojava to save not just themselves but the whole world from the terror and darkness of ISIS, Turkish authorities encouraged Islamist armed groups to target and kill more than 150 Kurdish civilians and pro-Kurdish activists between 2015 and 2016. The Turkish state started arresting Kurdish politicians, activists, and journalists who used democratic means to publicize these human rights violations. As a young journalist, I also received one year and ten months of imprisonment for my reporting on human rights violations during this period.
Between July 2015 and August 2016, Turkish authorities also conducted military operations in more than thirty Kurdish towns and neighborhoods, using artillery and heavy weapons. According to a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 1,200 local residents were killed, and between 355,000 to 500,000 individuals were forcibly displaced during these operations. Using the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 as an excuse, Turkish authorities closed down Kurdish media outlets and arrested Kurdish journalists. More than seven thousand Kurdish politicians and activists have been imprisoned, including the co-chairs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and eight other parliamentarians. Ninety-eight democratically elected Kurdish mayors have been removed from office and the majority of them were then arrested. Because of the scope of this oppression, as well as the lack of effective reaction from the democratic world, Leyla Güven and other Kurdish prisoners have been left without any options besides going on hunger strike. Unfortunately, eight Kurdish prisoners have gone beyond even this last resort and ended their lives to protest the Turkish state’s oppression.
Given the length of the protest and the vast number of prisoners, journalists, and activists on hunger strike, the lack of Western media coverage is disheartening. I want to make it clear that we are taking this action not because we want to die; rather, we are risking our lives to protest the anti-democratic policies of the Turkish state and the criminalization of Kurdish people while asking the government to establish the rule of law and resume peace negotiations to end years of violence and bloodshed.
I call for the international community, newspapers, and news agencies to pay attention to our protest and give voice to our call for democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Turkey.