Hundreds of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey have been on a hunger strike for 56 days. On Nov. 4, the Armenian Weekly editor conducted an interview with Bilgin Ayata about the reaction the hunger strike in Turkish prisons is receiving and the demands of the hunger strikers.
Dr. Bilgin Ayata is an assistant professor at Freie Universität Berlin. She received her Ph.D. from the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include the politics of displacement, trans-nationalism, social movements, and migration. Her dissertation examines the displacement of Kurds in Turkey and Europe.
Below is the full text of the interview.
Khatchig Mouradian—Talk about the demands of the hunger strikers.
Bilgin Ayata—In 2009, a very large wave of arrests began after the criminal investigation into KCK [Union of Communities in Kurdistan]. About 8,000 people were arrested. At that point, there were many protests particularly because the arrests included prominent intellectuals. But ever since Busra Ersanli, a political science professor in Istanbul, and a few others were released, public awareness of this issue has declined even further. The majority of the lawyers, students, journalists, and activists remain in prison. This means people have been detained for almost three years, and some of them have not even had a trial.
When the KCK trials began, the Kurdish inmates insisted on doing their defense in the Kurdish language, which is prohibited in Turkish courts. Thus, one of the three demands of the hunger strikers is to speak in their mother tongue at court. The other demand is primary education in the mother tongue; so far the government allows the Kurdish language to be taught only in private language schools, and not in public schools. The third demand is to end the isolation and solitary confinement of PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] leader Abdullah Ocalan. For more than 440 days now, Ocalan’s lawyers have not been allowed to see him. The hunger strikers have stated that Abdullah Ocalan is the leader of the PKK, and thus he is a leader of the Kurds; thus, the way he is treated stands symbolically for the treatment of the Kurds in Turkey.
K.M.—Let’s discuss the reaction the hunger strike created in Turkey. After a lag of a few weeks, it seems, the media started paying attention to the plight and demands of the hunger strikers.
B.A.—When the strike began, only the Kurdish media and a few alternative outlets reported on it. Now the Turkish mainstream media reports only sporadically about the hunger strike from the perspective of the government, which tries to silence and suppress the issue. However, ongoing protests in the Kurdish region in support of the hunger strikes, as well as a growing number of initiatives, are trying to break this silence. First, Kurdish scholars initiated a petition campaign that received international support from Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Michael Taussig, and a number of other intellectuals. Later on, Turkish scholars also initiated a petition campaign in Turkey. Currently, an interesting campaign is underway in Turkey, where people are called upon to write their protests on money bills against the silencing of the hunger strike.
Plenty of alternative information is being circulated on Facebook and Twitter, including many pictures of police brutality against the relatives of the hunger strikers. Together with the ongoing mass protests in the Kurdish region—which the rest of Turkey or the world doesn’t notice—these actions are contributing to the increasing visibility of the hunger strike, But compared to the severity of the situation, the overall silence is appalling. Unfortunately, Turkey’s prime minister, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, is not simply a passive bystander in this. He even blatantly lied in public appearances. In a recent visit to Berlin, Germany, he stated that the hunger strike is a lie, and that the inmates are eating secretly. Ironically, at the very same time, the German Minister of Justice was visiting her counterpart in Ankara, who briefed her that there were hundreds of hunger strikers in Turkish prisons. Similar statements have been made by other prime ministers in earlier hunger strikes. Erdogan is reacting exactly like his predecessors in this issue.
K.M.—It seems highly unlikely that the Turkish government will engage with the demands of the hunger strikers in any meaningful way. You mentioned how this is not the first time that hunger strikes have taken place in Turkish prisons. What do past experiences teach us?
B.A.—Hunger strikes are ultimately a lethal form of protest. Prisoners take this up at a point when they believe all else has failed. You go on hunger strike because you want to make your voice heard no matter what the costs, and when the only means left is your body.
History shows that hunger strikes in Turkey end brutally. During the hunger strike in the prisons in 2000, first the inmates who lost their consciousness were forcibly fed, and later, the military raided the prisons. Twenty-seven people died during these military raids, and another 100 in the death fasts. And many of the hunger strikers are carrying irreversible illnesses until today.
K.M.—This hunger strike has not garnered reaction—let alone outrage—from the international community either.
B.A.—When Erdogan visited here [Berlin], Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, at least publicly, did not raise this issue. Of course, there are common interests stopping her from engaging in public criticism. The international media has been very silent on the hunger strike, as well. With each passing day, there are more reports, but they are still few and far between.
We are now at the 54th day, so the health deterioration of the prisoners is proceeding rapidly. If no solution is found, deaths are going to occur soon, and unfortunately only then will the international media probably pay more attention.
This is indicative of a general trend over the past decade to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s Kurdish conflict and the quality of democracy in Turkey. One has to consider that Turkey has been promoted as a role model for democracy since 2001. This role model discourse has gained intensity in the wake of the Arab revolutions, during which Turkey was promoted as a democratic role model for the Middle East, even though these mass arrests were happening in Turkey and the Kurdish conflict was in full swing. Arresting 8,000 people affiliated in one way or another with the Kurdish movement and the BDP [the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] means extinguishing the possibilities of the Kurds’ legitimate political struggle by collectively criminalizing them. It is as if the state wants to push for more violence to come.
Instead of a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government is relying on brute force—just as its predecessors. How this makes Turkey a role model for democracy is anybody’s guess.