The much-anticipated announcement of the end of the hunger strikes came at 11 am our time in a statement on behalf of Kurdish political prisoners from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and PAJK (Party of Free Women of Kurdistan), some of whom had been on indefinite hunger strike since 16 December 2018. It was followed by a statement from the hunger striking HDP MPs, where MP Tayyip Temel quoted these simple words from Leyla Guven, who initiated this massive protest from Amed (Diyarbakır) Prison on 7 November 2018: ‘We believed and we succeeded’.
The hunger strikers had one simple demand: that the Turkish Government comply with their own constitution and international conventions on human rights and end the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, allowing him regular access to his family and his lawyers. Öcalan is recognised as their leader by millions of Kurds, and you don’t have to be Kurdish to recognise the huge impact of his ideas in bringing an empowering grassroots democracy to Northern Syria, building bridges between different ethnic groups and – especially – ensuring women can take a full part in society. In the last two decades Öcalan has made repeated attempts to negotiate a peaceful and respectful future for the Kurds in Turkey, and the respect that he himself commands makes his role vital to any peace settlement between the Kurds and the Turkish Government. While there is an international call for Ocalan’s freedom, the hunger strikers limited themselves to the more immediately realisable human rights demand for an end to his isolation, which is recognised in law as a form of torture.
The first hunger striker was Leyla Guven, a Kurdish MP and (then) political prisoner in Turkey, now on her 200th day without food. The 14 hunger strikers in Strasbourg and Imam Şiş in Wales are on day 161. By the end there were over 7000 people on indefinite hunger strike in Turkish jails, and across the world, and 30 prisoners on death fast, who were taking only water and refusing the minimum of vitamins and small amounts of salt and sugar taken by the other hunger strikers.
When Ocalan met with his lawyers on 2 May, for the first time in nearly 8 years, the hunger strikers were not persuaded that this would be repeated, and so continued with their strike. But after their second visit, on 22 May, hopes have been raised that this will not be the last. And Ocalan conveyed a clear call for the end of the strike and a continuation of the struggle by political means. As his lawyers reported in their press statement this morning:
‘During the meeting, Öcalan insisted on his call for the termination of hunger strikes and death-fasts, which have achieved their goals. After this call, we believe that strikers will terminate the action. Our client stated that if talks were not held in the future, it could be protested by a political struggle, but actions such as hunger strikes and death-fasts should be avoided. He stated that the main thing is a culture of democratic political struggle and that it is more important for the strikers to be physically, spiritually and mentally healthy. Using Gandhi as an example for his hunger strike, he said that Gandhi made his hunger strike meaningful by his social struggle.’
It has taken a few days for the lawyers to meet and talk with the hunger strikers – including the thousands in Turkish prisons – and get their united agreement to end their strike action. Day’s when activists around the world have been checking their phones every few minutes
Of course we can only guess at Erdoğan’s thinking, but even in a world where politics has little time for morality, insistence on denying human rights is not good diplomacy. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, and earlier this month (between the first and second visits from Ocalan’s lawyers) the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture was finally persuaded to re-visit Ocalan in his island prison. I don’t suppose we will ever know what part our campaigns and letters and petitions may have played in this. There is no published report – which would have to be vetted by Turkey and last time took two years to produce – but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been discussions.
There is also no doubt that the forthcoming rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election weighs heavily on Erdoğan’s mind. This is a contest that has been endowed with huge political significance, aided by Erdoğan’s own rhetoric and political history – it was as mayor of Istanbul that he built the power base that has carried him to prime minister and almost-all-powerful president. In the local elections at the end of March, the candidate for Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly lost out to the man from the main, Kemalist, opposition, with Kurdish tactical voting playing a crucial role. But under intense AKP pressure, the electoral authorities have declared the election compromised, and a rerun will take place on 23 June. When a small swing can make a big difference, Erdoğan may have calculated that dying hunger strikers would not help the AKP’s image.
Although it has been suggested that Erdoğan is hoping for Kurdish electoral support, this would be a negation of everything the Kurds have been struggling for. And this one concession – to begin to comply with Turkey’s own laws – has not been matched by any let up in anti-Kurdish brutality elsewhere. Protests in support of the hunger strikers – especially those by prisoners’ mothers – have been met by police batons and arrests. Turkey has also increasingly demonstrated its intention to incorporate Afrin, the autonomous predominantly Kurdish region in Northern Syria that they invaded last year, into their own territory. They have encircled Afrin with a border wall and are replacing Kurdish families with Arabs, including members of Jihadist gangs. Meanwhile, Turkish attacks on neighbouring Kurdish areas fuel fears of further invasion. And, of course, the great majority of the over 7000 people on hunger strike are still political prisoners in Turkey’s jails.
So, as we celebrate this victory – at a time when any victory for progressive forces is a rarity – we need to be aware how fragile it is. It can unlock a door to change, but that door will only open if pressure is kept up and increased. Despite a shocking lack of mainstream coverage, this massive action has not only mobilised Kurds everywhere, but also raised wider awareness of the Kurdish cause, especially coinciding, as it has, with the Kurdish-led victory over ISIS in Syria. More and more people have become aware that the Kurds are not only the most effective force against ISIS, but that the Kurdish movement, led by Abdullah Ocalan, also stands for grass-roots democracy, women’s rights, multiculturalism and ecology. And that the Turkish government is the enemy of the progress that the Kurds would bring, not only to Turkey and Syria but to the wider region and beyond.
All of us who have been moved by this hunger strike will now need to campaign harder to ensure that Turkey doesn’t back track on any assurances given, as they have done so often before, and that this opportunity to build wider support for the truly progressive Kurdish movement is not wasted. We – and especially those MPs and MSPs and trade unions who have publicly shown their support – can keep up pressure on Turkey via pressure on the Council of Europe and the UK Foreign Office. And all of us – including all those academics from across the world who have signed our letters in support of the hunger strikers to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture – can raise wider awareness of what is happening: the difficulties and also the possibilities. A hunger strike is an action of last resort, only taken when the world refuses to listen, but their message has been made impossible to ignore. We have begun to hear it in our parliaments, in our news media, in our trade unions, in our universities, and on our streets. Today we celebrate the successful action of the most principled, dedicated and unselfish people you could ever meet. Now it’s our turn to act.