Hunger strikes and Kurdish rights

Hunger strikes and Kurdish rights

One of the burning issues in Turkey these days is the hunger strikes that hundreds of Kurdish inmates have initiated in order to advance their political demands. Most of them are convicts or suspects in the case of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the so-called urban branch of the PKK, a terrorist group by Turkish and most international definitions. And, as much as I despise the PKK, I do support at least some of their demands.

The hunger strikers’ first demand is the “right to defense in Kurdish.” This means that they want to be able to give their testimony in Turkish courts in their native language, something that they have been asking for in the KCK trials to no avail.

I have supported this demand from the beginning, as I do today. It is the job of the state, I believe, to respect the languages of its citizens and listen to them in the form that they speak. Turkish courts, therefore, should employ translators for the suspects or witnesses who want to speak in Kurdish, as would be the case for any foreigner tried in Turkish courts.

The good news is that the government has responded to this demand positively. As Bülent Arınç, deputy prime minister and government spokesman, announced the other day, the Justice Ministry has prepared an amendment in the Turkish penal code which will allow any suspect to defend himself “in the language he states he will defend himself better in.” This amendment is expected to come to Parliament and be passed soon. This is truly good news.

The second demand of the hunger strikers is “education in Kurdish.” They, in other words, want schools in which the whole curriculum will be in the Kurdish language. My take on this is a bit more complex than the first issue. I do not believe that the state has to give education in every single mother tongue in a country. I rather believe that the state merely has to allow private education in those mother tongues just like in the United States, where public schools operate only in English but education in other languages or based on particular religions can be given in private schools.

The third demand of the hunger strikers is, in my view, the least reasonable one: improved prison conditions and the eventual house arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in a Turkish prison on the island of İmralı in the Marmara Sea since his arrest in 1999. This is unreasonable, for Öcalan’s current situation is not a violation of any right. The man is in prison for leading a terrorist organization that has claimed thousands of innocent lives. Turkey can well consider an improvement in Öcalan’s conditions if the government believes that this will help end the PKK’s armed campaign. But things cannot change simply because Öcalan has fans that are ready to starve themselves to death for him.

In fact, more horrible incidents took place in 1999 when Öcalan was first captured. Several PKK members in Turkish jails burned themselves alive to protest the imprisoning of their “people’s leader.”

The decision was made not by them but by the PKK central command, which regarded its own members as disposable apparatus.

Sadly, the same is true today. Most hunger strikers are obeying the orders of the PKK, which does not care about all the suffering it is causing. This is yet another sobering sign that the collective “Kurdish liberation” that the PKK seeks will be at the expense of the lives of many Kurdish individuals.