The trial of Leyla Zana

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Sep 24 12:32:41 MDT 2003

London Review of Books
Sept. 25, 2003

Stuart Kerr

I buy my visa to enter Turkey from an immigration officer just inside
the terminal building at Esenboga Airport in Ankara. I give him my
passport and two grubby fivers, caked with the residue of London; he
inspects them and then me with suspicion before stamping my passport,
and I join the queue designated for non-Turkish nationals to pass
immigration control. There are dozens of people in the queue chatting in
Turkish but brandishing passports from Germany, Norway, Switzerland and
elsewhere. Most, I guess, are Kurdish and I am reminded, yet again, that
thousands of Kurds have made a home for themselves away from a notional
Kurdistan, a region extending from south-east Turkey to northern Iraq.
Many in this queue will have been born abroad, or will have established
new lives in Munich, say, or London. Some will be refugees, taking a
risk by returning briefly under new identities.

When I reach the head of the queue, my passport is looked at carefully
before I'm allowed to pass. I'm relieved not to be asked the purpose of
my visit: friends and colleagues who have conducted fact-finding
missions in Turkey have been threatened and beaten up by police. One had
a gun held to his head.

I have been appointed by a Geneva-based NGO, the International
Commission of Jurists, to observe the June hearing of the trial of Leyla
Zana and three other former Kurdish Parliamentarians charged with
membership of the armed separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party,
or PKK. My knowledge of the issues stems from having represented
hundreds of Kurds claiming refugee status in the UK and from sifting
through human rights reports. My purpose is to encourage Turkey's
compliance with the principles of the European Convention on Human
Rights, to which it has been a signatory since 1954.

When Leyla Zana was 14, she was pressured by her family into marrying
her second cousin, Mehdi Zana, an activist who had recently spent three
years in prison. In 1977, Mehdi was elected mayor of Diyarbakir, the
largest Kurdish city in Turkey, but after the military coup in 1980, he
was arrested again and sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment. Leyla and
her two children visited her husband throughout the 1980s. 'I met many
different people while standing at the prison gates,' she has said. 'I
began to change, to question my identity . . . Until then I had no
interest in the fact that I was a Kurd. The ideal was to be a Turk.' She
founded and chaired a women's group, which helped women who, among other
things, were waiting for their husbands to be released from prison. Then
in 1988, on a visit to the prison, she was denied access to her husband.
She could hear inmates being beaten inside the prison and raised a
protest. She was arrested and tortured: 'That was about the time I
decided to become a political activist.'

In 1991, she was elected to the Turkish Parliament, winning 84 per cent
of the votes cast in Diyarbakir - she was the first Kurdish woman to
become an MP. At her inauguration, she wore a headband decorated with
the traditional Kurdish colours, yellow, green and red. When she took
the oath of loyalty to Parliament, she spoke first in Turkish, as
required by law, then added in Kurmanji, an illegal Kurdish dialect: 'I
shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish people may live
peacefully together in a democratic framework.' MPs erupted with shouts
of 'separatist', 'terrorist' and 'arrest her.' Parliamentary immunity
saved her, for the time being.



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