In the early months of 2019, hundreds of Kurds around the world implemented a hunger strike to protest the ongoing assaults they face at the hands of the Turkish government. An article by Dougie Gerrard for RedPepper explains how Leyla Güven, a member of the Turkish Parliament, started this strike. Güven began starving herself after being imprisoned for speaking out against the Turkish invasion of Afrin, the westernmost region of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Güven, who represents the Peoples’ Democratic Party, was charged with a “terror-related” crime. Although she is clearly not a terrorist, her charges stemmed from her criticism of Turkish state terrorism. Since then, numbers of Kurds across the globe, many of whom are Kurdish political prisoners, began joining her in her peaceful protest.
The unified demand of those participating in the strike is to end the inhumane isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish political leader who has been imprisoned on Imrali Island since 1999. He has been held there in seclusion that has only been interrupted on two occasions in the past eight years, each time due to astounding public pressure. The strikers’ implicit second demand is that peace negations with Turkey, which have long been dormant, be reopened.
Gerrard’s article goes on to explain how these strikes are growing in numbers as word spreads across the globe despite a lack of news coverage. These strikes are growing in the Turkish prison system, with over 300 Kurdish political prisoners on strike. It has also begun to spread across Europe with activist groups in Strasbourg, Newport, and even Germany. It may seem strange that all these people are protesting for the release of one man, Abdullah Öcalan, however the bigger picture reveals the true nature of why an end to his solitary confinement is important. Öcalan is a victim of the criminalization of Kurdishness and has been placed in incarceration-like conditions which directly break the ‘Mandela Rules’ governing humane imprisonment. Ending his isolation is not a quest of symbolic importance, but instead a necessary precondition for lasting peace, as Öcalan has brokered a number of uneasy, impermanent ceasefires and peace treaties with Turkey.
However, in Turkey’s current state, political imprisonment is frequent and, when trials actually happen, they are rushed through the courts with a minimum of legal legitimacy. As a result, political imprisonment in Turkey is on the rise. Erdogan’s administration, known for its secretive nature, has displayed intolerance toward Kurds and Kurdishness at home and abroad. It is also responsible for this current wave of repression as they are trying to defang the Kurdish opposition before local elections scheduled for March of 2019.
The absence of western media coverage is frustrating for those involved in the Kurdish movement, especially considering the large number of people involved. In fact, it took a letter from the activist and scholar Angela Davis addressed to the New York Times for the US press to even glimpse at the issue. Even when the story is picked up by a larger news outlet, the lack of context, as well as a failure to cover the true issues that the Kurds are trying to address, downplays the severity of these strikes. The RedPepper article points to a news article by Selin Girit for BBC News which covers the unfair imprisonment and self-starvation of Leyla Güven. However, the BBC’s coverage fails to mention Güven’s stated intent to continue her hunger strike after she is released. It also fails to mention the larger picture beyond this one woman. outcomes surrounding the issue.
Source: Dougie Gerrard, “Hunger Striking for Peace in Turkey,” Red Pepper, February 19, 2019, https://www.redpepper.org.uk/hunger-striking-for-peace-in-rojava/.
Student Researchers: Jake Ronnow (College of Western Idaho) and Troy Patton (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)