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.
150 days. For 14 Kurdish men and women in Strasbourg, for Imam Şiş in Wales, 150 days without food. From the short days of December to the long evenings of early summer. And still their demand is not met. Ocalan, their imprisoned leader, saw his brother – the first time in 2 years. But only once. He saw his lawyers – the first time in nearly 8 years. But there is no guarantee that they can meet again. While the hunger strikers recognise their achievement, the strike goes on.
But there has been another achievement – harder to notice because more gradual. An achievement that cannot be annulled at the whim of the Turkish government. The Kurdish freedom movement has gained a new strength. We can see it in the protests of the prisoners’ mothers, where every act of state repression steels Kurdish resolve. And we can see it outwith Turkey too. Despite mainstream indifference to a cause that muddies geopolitical ambitions, truth is leaking out.
The hunger strikers have raised their standard high so that it is impossible to ignore. But they cannot do much more. Now it is up to us – to the growing numbers who have been moved by their cause – to take up that standard and carry it forward.
(To find out more about the Kurdish hunger strike, which was started by Leyla Guven 189 days ago and now includes over 7000 people, and get a link to a letter you can send to help, click here.)
Newport, Gwent, has become an extraordinary hive of activity for the Kurdish cause. At its heart is a man who is wasting away after 140 days on hunger strike, but whose enthusiasm for creating a better world shines out of twinkling eyes. When I finally got to meet Imam Şiş last Wednesday, he was sitting up in his bed beneath a PKK flag, with Persian violin music coming out of his laptop and a big stack of books on the table beside him. His weight loss made him appear much younger than his 32 years. We discussed the harassment that the community and supporters have had from the police, and how the Kurds have insisted on their right to fly that PKK flag, and he asked after the hunger strikers I had visited in Strasbourg. Although he has the warmest of smiles, he observed that he can get angry when solicitous friends try to force him to take food or attempt to slip nutrients into his water. And he protested – as a visiting photographer took photographs – that all this is not about him, but about the cause.
The next day was May Day, and local campaigners had arranged to hold a candlelit vigil for the hunger strikers on the steps of the National Museum in Cardiff. Speakers included Plaid Welsh Assembly Member, Bethan Sayid, and there were messages from Labour members – all interrupted by loudspeaker announcements by museum security against the use of naked flames. I said a few words of solidarity from Scotland, and there was a speech in Welsh that compared Imam’s action to the candle flame in the speaker’s hand. But all our speeches were tame compared to the call to action that Imam had written to be read out at the vigil and at the rally on Saturday.
I saw Imam again briefly back at the Newport Community Centre that night, and was shocked to learn the next day that his condition had suddenly become critical, and no more visitors were being allowed. The Welsh solidarity action had already surpassed similar action elsewhere – including getting a motion of support agreed in the Welsh Assembly – but now activity acquired a new urgency. At the official level, Plaid Cymru wrote to the Welsh Minister for International Affairs, and the next day a letter was sent to UK Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt. (Of course, he is hardly the person to whom one would choose to intrust one’s future, but he is the person with power to intervene.) Activists had already planned a good turnout for the Saturday May Day march, where Imam’s speech was read at the rally, and ‘boycott Turkish holidays’ pickets were already being organised for different spots around the UK. We contributed a bit of leafleting and street speaking in Dundee as part of this.
The campaign has brought together members of the Kurdish community and left activists of all kinds. Imam is a member of Plaid, and was already well known for his involvement in other socialist campaigns. The movement around Ocalan calls for Kurdish cultural freedom, but it is also a vibrant force for left internationalism. And, as Imam reminded everyone in his speech, ‘Every day that goes by without struggle is a service to the ruling classes of the capitalist system.’
Never in recent history have we been in greater need of an organisation that will stand up for those abused by power. But if that organisation is to have credibility, then it must support all those whose human rights are being trampled on, and not ignore – or appear to ignore – the rights of any ethnic group. This is not only damaging to that group of people. It also undermines the organisation as a whole, affecting everyone that it seeks to help.
Amnesty is well aware of human rights abuses in Turkey, which have even targeted their own representatives, but they seem to have a persistent blind spot when it comes to Turkey’s systematic repression of the Kurds. They have said nothing about the denial of Abdullah Ocalan’s basic human rights to visits from his family and his lawyers, and nothing about the over 7000 Kurds on hunger strike to protest this situation, many of whom are political prisoners who face extra hard conditions as punishment for their protest.
We therefore give our wholehearted support to the Kurdish activists and supporters who have occupied Amnesty International’s headquarters in London to draw attention to the issues that Amnesty persistently ignores. And we are shocked to learn of the mistreatment of the protestors by Amnesty representatives. We are shocked that Amnesty has claimed to the protestors that they were not aware of Ocalan’s isolation or of the prisoners on hunger strike, and we are shocked by the physical treatment that the protestors have received.
The occupying activists included three people who have been on hunger striker for 43 days, but that didn’t stop Amnesty from denying them water, fresh air, and access to the toilets. One of the occupiers, a young Kurdish refugee observed that he had spent almost three years in Turkish prisons, but even there, before and after regular torture, they were allowed to use the toilet. The conditions in the Amnesty office have proved so damaging that two of the three long-term hunger strikers have had to be taken away by ambulance.
No organisation should mistreat people as Amnesty has done, but when this mistreatment comes from an organisation that exists to defend human rights, it demonstrates how far removed they are from their purported mission.
It is not just our official international institutions that are broken, established independent organisations are failing too. Yet again we see demonstrated the old truth that if we want to see change, we must make it happen ourselves.
SINCE I WROTE THIS POST LAST NIGHT, AMNESTY HAS SENT IN THE POLICE AND 21 PEOPLE, INCLUDING HUNGER STRIKERS AND PEOPLE WHO HAVE ESCAPED FROM POLICE BRUTALITY IN THEIR HOME COUNTRIES ARE DISTRIBUTED IN POLICE STATIONS ACROSS LONDON
Film director Ken Loach, who has previously been outspoken in support of the London Kurdish Film Festival and the Kobane International Film Festival sends solidarity and support to the Kurdish hunger strikers.
His message, below, is jointly signed by screenwriter Paul Laverty and Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan committee member, Sarah Glynn
We want to express solidarity with over 7000 Kurdish hunger strikers and their demand that the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan be allowed his basic human right to visits by his family and his lawyers.
For so many to be driven to hunger strikes for basic human rights is a collective act of principled courage. It puts to shame all those states who refuse to enforce International law and end the brutal oppression suffered by Ocalan.
The importance of Ocalan is recognised by the trade union movement. The Durham Miners’ Gala chose ‘Freedom for Ocalan’ as their international campaign in 2018. Ocalan’s ideas on grassroots democracy, multiculturalism, and women’s rights are central to the inspiring social changes being carried out in the predominantly Kurdish autonomous region of Northern Syria. He has repeatedly urged a peaceful and respectful settlement for the Kurds in Turkey, and, like Mandela in South Africa, is key to any future peace settlement.
Regardless of political allegiance, denial of a prisoner’s basic human rights can never be acceptable.
Yet again, our political institutions have failed, and it is left to ordinary people to take the lead in international solidarity.
Each time I visit the hunger strikers in Strasbourg they are visibly weaker. Now, after 113 days without food, they spend almost the whole time in bed, though sleep is difficult and lack of real rest is itself a serious problem. They don’t like to talk about their health, but they are all suffering multiple pains and discomfort, as well as the fear that their heart could give up at any time, and they are extra-sensitive to sound and light. My friend, Kardo, continues to have problems with his eyes, so that he has to be separated off from the rest of the makeshift dormitory by a thick curtain to keep out the light, and the pain his eyes give him can be intense. For some of the hunger strikers, the only outwardly visible sign is their significant loss of weight, but Kerem Solhan looks fragile, his head wrapped in a shawl, and Yuksel Koç seems to have aged many years since I first met him just over 10 weeks ago, and has acquired new round glasses that, as Kardo observed, make him look like Gandhi. The stress is also telling on all those who provide them with daily support.
On doctor’s orders, my talks with Kardo were limited to 10-15 minutes. On Saturday I saw him twice, but he was suffering from a night of pain from his eyes. Despite the protection of dark glasses and his curtained bed, he kept closing his eyes to rest them, which made it harder for him to concentrate. But we managed to talk, among other things, about the difficulties for the Kurds in Turkey to rise up against the crushing brutality of the regime, and about support, and lack of support, from outwith the Kurdish community. I updated him on what was happening in the UK and he dictated a short message to be read out on Sunday’s demonstration in Cardiff.
On Sunday, I only had one brief visit, but Kardo managed to speak without his dark glasses, from the gloom of his curtained bed, and that old smile returned as he talked about the importance of living a revolutionary life even if you don’t succeed in your aims, and recalled his excitement at seeing the changes brought to the Arab women by the SDF’s liberation of Manbij. He observed that he used to think that Kurds were the most oppressed people until he saw those Arab women, and he described his own joy as they discovered their new freedom, and one overcame her initial fear sufficiently not only to speak up but to argue back at him.
Visitors came to see the hunger strikers from different places, including their families. Yuksal introduced me to his wife, and there was a big delegation of Kurds and their friends from Italy. While supporters boost the morale, it is getting harder for the hunger strikers to spend much time with them. And, ass well as the predictable pain of street noises to people in their extra-sensitive condition, I was told that some local Turks drive by in cars blaring out Turkish nationalist songs.
Meanwhile, in the big official buildings at the other side of the city, ministers and officials make speeches and shuffle papers. Sometimes, in response to intense behind the scenes lobbying, mention is made of the Kurdish question – even supportive statements produced – but none of this results in action. And so, we wait to see how Erdoğan responds to an election wounding in which Kurdish votes played a conspicuous part.
The chances of Turkey conceding to the hunger strikers’ have never been high, but, although they are insistent on realising their demands, the hunger strikes also have another aim and another measure of success, and that is the strengthening of their movement, both within the Kurdish community and beyond.
This desperate action is a response to their failure to get noticed through more conventional means, but the ability of the wider world to ignore even this vast demonstration of selfless determination is shocking, if perhaps no longer surprising. In the UK, the concerted efforts of activists inspired by the Welsh Kurdish hunger striker, Imam Şiş, have begun to force the issue into the mainstream political consciousness, but we will need to do a lot more to breach the walls of national self-interest and move out from the obsession with Brexit, if we want the Kurds to receive the attention their action and case deserve.
The letter below is from my friend Kardo Bokanî, who taught political philosophy at University College Dublin. He has asked me to send it out for him because, after 66 days without food, he no longer has the mental concentration needed to organise this, and his eyesight has also been affected. I have visited Kardo and the other hunger strikers in Strasbourg, and came away feeling that if the rest of us shared just a fraction of their integrity and commitment, the world would be a much better place. I have just read the most recent report on their deteriorating health, and it’s terrifying. I hope that, after you have read Kardo’s letter, you will want to add your name to our open letter to the Council of Europe and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, in support of the Hungers strikers’ very simple, human rights-based demand. They are calling on these institutions to act to make Turkey, which is a member of the Council of Europe, end the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and allow him visits from his family and lawyers, in line with European Human Rights law, the UN Mandela Rules on minimum rights for political prisoners, and Turkey’s own constitution.
This letter is written from academics in Europe, but if you don’t fall into that category, you can still show your support by ensuring more people learn about what is happening. And letters to parliamentary representatives can help. It is an appalling indictment of our political system and mainstream media that these selfless political activists have felt the need to put their lives on the line in order to try and get their message heard. But we can at least help amplify it.
If you would like to add your name to our letter, please email me at email@example.com, along with the name of your academic institution if you have one. And please share this appeal widely. I would like to get the letter off by next Monday (25th February) at the latest.
HERE IS KARDO BOKANÎ’S LETTER:
Dear friends and colleagues,
Dear academics, intellectuals and philosophers,
I write from the Kurdish hunger strike in Strasbourg to ask you for your support in our demand that the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been held in solitary confinement for the last twenty years, be allowed his basic human rights.
I am an Irish citizen, and with 13 other political activists, including a lawyer, a former MP, a politician, an intellectual and a journalist, I have been on indefinite hunger strike in Strasbourg since 17 December. We based ourselves here because it is the home of the Council of Europe. There are now over 300 Kurds on indefinite hunger strike in different places, many of them political prisoners in Turkey. The hunger strikes were begun by imprisoned MP, Leyla Güven on 7 November. The aim of our action is to end the inhumane isolation that the Turkish state has imposed on Ocalan. We demand that he be allowed his right to regular visits by his family members and lawyers, as required by international law on human rights and Turkey’s own constitution.
Ocalan is not an ordinary political prisoner. First, he is a political figure revered by millions of Kurds as their rightful leader, who has dedicated his life to Kurdish emancipation from the brutal, internal colonialism practised by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Second, he is a political theorist whose philosophy gave shape to what we see now in Northern Syria (Rojava); a democratic, multi-cultural and feminist society that has been admired by progressive forces throughout the world. Third, he has been the most vocal politician in Turkey urging for peace and a democratic solution to the Kurdish conflict. To silence a political figure such as Ocalan is to silence the most vital voice for peace in Turkey.
You may rightfully ask, why would you put your life in danger? The answer is straightforward: Europe’s indifference towards the Kurdish issue in general and the Ocalan case in particular, has left us with no alternative. The continued failures of European institutions, such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Council of Europe, to carry out their duty are forcing us, as European citizens, to embark on this fatal course. Their failure to act points to a crisis of democracy and loss of humane values, and they will be responsible for any fatality. Ultimately, the European institutions need to do much more than support our simple demand, but what we ask should be a practical, attainable first step.
So long as our demand is not met, we will not end our strike. The prospect of death does not scare us away from our protest. We understand that we, as humans, are accountable for the world we live in. We, together, have the power to decide what that world looks like. We choose not to accept the global retreat from democracy. We choose to push back against the deafening silence and indifference to inhumanity.
As a young political philosopher who taught at University College Dublin (UCD), and on behalf of more than 300 hunger strikers, I call upon you to urge the European institutions to hear the call of their citizens – who may perish at any moment in Strasbourg – and to fulfil their responsibility, set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, to help lift the isolation imposed on Ocalan before it is too late.