There's No Fair Trial For Any Kurd in Turkey

With Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan now in Turkish hands, Europe, the U.S. and various human rights organizations are calling on Turkey to give him a fair trial. But as anyone familiar with the 75 year long history of Turkey's "Kurdish policy" knows, there's nothing fair about the trial of any Kurd in Turkey.In 1925 the Kurd's existence as a distinct ethnic group was outlawed by the new Turkish republic. Since that year successive Turkish governments have banned and prosecuted virtually all ethnic Kurdish expression. For decades Kurds have been prohibited from speaking their language in public, wearing Kurdish costume, giving Kurdish babies Kurdish names, using Kurdish place-names of their towns, villages, rivers and mountains or reading or writing in Kurdish -- not to mention using the name for the Kurdish homeland, "Kurdistan."Over the last seven decades the Turkish judicial system has been refined to punish any "crime" of being Kurdish. Turkish prisons have been filled with Kurds. Outside, torture has become routine for those who breach these bans.In 1981, for example, former cabinet minister Serafettin Elei was sentenced to two years and three months at hard labor for saying in public, "I am a Kurd. There are Kurds in Turkey."Right after the Gulf War in 1991, the Ankara government was lauded in Western capitals for "lifting the language ban." Yet, despite this, Kurdish members of parliament were still being sentenced to prison for as long as fifteen years for speaking Kurdish in parliament and raising the Kurdish issue before official and human rights bodies in Europe and the United States. Turkish intellectuals who dare to broach the topic suffer a similar fate.The Turks, through a little bit of linguistic gymnastics, have made the Kurds disappear. They call them "Mountain Turks who have forgotten their native language." A good part of these so-called Mountain Turks live in Turkey's southeast. This is a region the Turkish authorities have deliberately kept backward and impoverished. It has been under Turkish military occupation for decades.Until 1965, foreign visitors were not allowed entry without official permission. Successive governments maintained a cloak of secrecy over the Kurdish "situation." And they warned that if reports about the situation got out they would present the world with evidence that the Kurds are primitive "bloodthirsty" illiterates.When Abdullah Ocalan came along in the 1970's with his Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), armed resistance against the powerful Turkish army became a feasible option. The PKK was formed by a small group of young men and women who took up arms in 1984. Immediately Ankara demonized them as "Marxist terrorist separatists."Turkey's western allies, notably the United States, readily accepted Turkey's characterization of the PKK. After all, Washington viewed Turkey as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and, after the 1979 Iranian revolution, also as another bulwark, this one against Islamic fundamentalism.If past behavior is any indication, there's nothing Washington won't do for its indispensable Turkish ally. After "victory" in the Gulf War the Bush administration unexpectedly found itself dealing with two mutually hostile Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. Washington's main concern, however, was to get them to help Turkey crush the PKK. These parties then informed on PKK guerrillas, captured many and handed them over to the Turks.In its periodic incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan the Turkish army forced the PKK guerrillas to flee to mountain tops. There Turkish jets kept on bombing them.Washington has maneuvered everywhere to deny PKK fighters refuge in neighboring countries. At the same time it has been aiding the Turkish army in its military incursions into Iraq. Nothing has changed to this day. The Turks keep up their raids and Washington keeps rewarding them.Last September Washington managed to pull off a reconciliation between the two squabbling Kurdish factions. Not surprisingly both agreed to deny the PKK sanctuary throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. They promised Washington they would not allow any PKK base in the region and would prevent them from crossing into Turkey.The PKK is by far the biggest and best organized among the many Kurdish parties scattered over many countries. It has mobilized, as one can see from the protest demonstrations, the half million Turkish Kurds living in Germany. It has similarly organized thousands more in other European counties.The West European countries have criticized human rights abuses in Turkey. But their motives have not been to help the Kurds but to exclude Turkey from membership in the European Union (EU).When PKK chief Ocalan landed in Europe to seek asylum the Europeans were not willing to grant him that. Unnerved by Ankara's harangues and threatened behind the scenes by Washington they told him to move on.Today once again Europe mounts the rhetorical high ground to demand a safe trial for Ocalan. The human rights community echoes their piety. The New York based Human Rights Watch goes a step further and condemns the violence committed both by the Turkish army and the PKK fighters.But the Kurdish protesters who stormed embassies across Europe did it for the survival of their own people. The Turkish authorities want to make all Kurds into Mountain Turks and the Kurds refuse.So, as everyone ought to know, there's nothing fair about this war. And there will be nothing fair about the trial of Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey. Vera Saeedpour, who has written widely on Kurdish issues, is director of the New York-based Kurdish Library.


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