As the communities in Syria and Iraq were celebrating the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State caliphate last week, I too was rejoicing watching the historic images of dancing women and men, after years of violence, enslavement and oppression. When the Syrian Democratic Forces declared their victory over Isis, I was on the 98th day of my hunger strike.
As a Kurd, my commitment to a world of justice, equality and democracy forced me to leave Turkey and become a political refugee in the United Kingdom 15 years ago. I have been living in Newport, Wales, since 2014, where I am actively involved in struggles for coexistence and equality.
In December 2018, I went on hunger strike at the Kurdish community centre in Newport, after the elected Kurdish MP, former mayor, and women’s activist Leyla Güven began her hunger strike from her prison cell in Turkey in early November last year. She began this protest to break the systematic isolation imposed on imprisoned Kurdish people’s leader Abdullah Öcalan on Imrali Prison Island.
Viewed by millions of people as their leader, Abdullah Öcalan is the chief negotiator on behalf of the Kurdish people in the conflict with the Turkish state. This is a reality that is also accepted by the Turkish state, which has held dialogue processes with Öcalan in the past. On many occasions over decades, Öcalan initiated unilateral ceasefires and peace initiatives. His prison writings, which promote participatory democracy, gender equality and ecology, have laid out comprehensive roadmaps to peace in the region.
Since 2011, Öcalan has been banned from receiving visits from his lawyers, a violation of a fundamental human right. Since late spring of 2015, with the collapse of the peace process that he had initiated in 2013, he has been held under total isolation from the outside world. His family is no longer able to visit him. This total isolation amounts to torture under international human rights standards.
The Turkish state under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has launched brutal military campaigns in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, knows that by isolating Abdullah Öcalan, it silences the representative of the Kurdish people in the efforts to solve the conflict. With this, the state suffocates the option of peace and reconciliation.
Hunger striking is a civil protest form that people resort to after all other means to make political demands have been exhausted. While no harm is caused to others, the protesters put their lives at risk to express commitment to their principles.
On the same day as myself, a group of Kurdish activists and politicians launched a hunger strike in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) is the primary entity in charge of the case of Öcalan’s treatment. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and thus bound by its regulations. Unfortunately, the CPT is acting politically by refraining from acting according to its own rules at this time of urgency.
At the moment, thousands of Kurds, mostly political prisoners, are on hunger strike for the same purpose. Over the last few weeks, five people have taken their own lives in protest at the global silence. These actions foreshadow what we may expect to see, if the institutions in charge continue to fail to act upon their own self-declared duties.
Silence approves the ongoing authoritarian crackdown of the Turkish government against anyone who opposes it. The hunger strike thus also raises the voice of millions of people, whose plight can no longer be heard in an atmosphere of press censorship and anti-democratic government policies that increasingly limit spheres of civic life.
Instead of using its position to play a positive role for the resolution of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement, the UK government under Theresa May has struck major arms deals with the Turkish government, despite the latter‘s well documented, widespread practice of systematic human rights abuses and war crimes against civilian populations.
I stress that our demand is perfectly compatible with international law and universal human rights standards, as well as with Turkey’s own laws. We simply ask the Turkish state to respect the fundamental human rights of Öcalan, a demand that will moreover enable the country to return to the peace process, which tragically transformed into the most violent episode of a four decades-old war.
Since the beginning of my action, I have lost approximately 20kg and am suffering from various serious health issues. From the beginning, I knew that this action could result in my death, but I am determined to continue my protest until this single, legal and humane demand of ours has been met.
Encouraged by the Welsh parliament’s recent passing of a motion stating that Öcalan is not being held in line with human rights law, the UK government, parliament, political parties and civil society should urgently pressure Turkey and the Council of Europe to prevent more deaths, so that we can return to the peace process.
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