A man in Newport is on day 138 of a historic hunger strike and here’s how you can help

Imam with supporters (19/04/19)

Harry Heval

Since 17th December 2018 Imam Sis, a Kurdish man living in Newport, has been on hunger strike. During this time Imam has survived on just water with squeezed lemon, sugar, vitamin B supplements, and salt. Since 2nd May Imam has begun refusing visitors as his condition rapidly deteriorates.

Imam is on hunger strike alongside over 7000 others, many of them Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey, in a historic campaign which began on 7th November 2018 when the Kurdish MP to the Turkish Parliament, Leyla Güven, started her hunger strike from prison where she was held after speaking out against Turkey’s massacre of civilians in the northeast Syrian town of Afrin.

On 30th April 15 hunger strikers in Turkey shifted to a “death fast” meaning they are now refusing vitamins, accelerating the deterioration of their physical condition.

The hunger strikers are demanding that Turkey end the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish political leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan is the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organisation which has led an insurgency against a repressive Turkish state which locks up journalists, imprisons democratically elected politicians and covertly supports ISIS.

The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has been a bloody one, reaching its height towards the end of the 20th century. Turkey, the UK and the EU consider the PKK and Öcalan terrorists. Many others view Öcalan’s voice as key for any peace process and the PKK as an insurgency against an oppressive regime.

In March 2019 a Belgium court ruled that the PKK should not be considered a terrorist group and its conflict with Turkey seen as an “internal armed conflict”. In a historic Newroz (Kurdish New Year) speech in 2013 Öcalan declared a ceasefire which looked to be the beginning of a peaceful process to resolve “the Kurdish question”.

But Turkey broke the ceasefire, intensified Öcalan’s isolation and has refused to enter into constructive dialogue with the Kurdish people and their representatives since.

The historic hunger strike campaign, of which Newport’s Imam Sis is one of the longest participants, is the latest chapter in this struggle between the Turkish state (in particular, the ethnonationalism of current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and the Kurds who have been repeatedly denied a homeland or even the right to speak their own language and practise their own culture.

The two core demands of the hunger strikers are:

  1. Turkey must allow Abdullah Öcalan regular access to his lawyers (denied since 2011) and family.
  2. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) must re-open its investigation into the prison on Imrali Island (Turkey) where Öcalan is held in solitary confinement.

Empowering

In March 2018 Wales became the first country in the world to express formal support for the hunger strikers when the Senedd passed what campaigners dubbed “Imam’s Motion”.

The debate leading up to the vote was dominated by passionate and articulate contributions from Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, Delyth Jewell and Bethan Sayed. A group of powerful women arguing so passionately in support of the Kurdish people was fitting.

In Rojava (northeast Syria) a Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic, multi-faith coalition has not only recently captured the last of ISIS’ territory but is also empowering women by placing the protection of their rights and autonomy at the centre of their radical political project, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

In this region, democracy is devolved down to the local level with communities given direct control over their own lives. Elected posts require a male and a female appointee and in some instances, female representatives are allowed to veto male decisions in an effort to correct historic gender imbalances that have traditionally left women disempowered. Ecological concerns are also given primacy.

For more information on Öcalan and “democratic confederalism” check out this short documentary narrated by BAFTA nominated actor Maxine Peake or one of the many pamphlets written by Öcalan. 1, 2, 3, 4.

Supporters of Imam on a one-day solidarity fast on 19th April, posing in front of the new mural in the garden of the Kurdish Community Centre in Newport (19/04/19)

Support

This is all worth noting to highlight what the hunger strikers are fighting for: a feminist, democratic, ecological political system. And there has been no bigger influence on the contemporary Kurdish movement than Abdullah Öcalan.

This is why over 7000 people have been willing to put their lives on the line to break Öcalan’s isolation and re-open the peace process with Turkey. And this is why we must support and amplify their demands.

You can help by doing any (preferably all!) of the following:

  1. You can message the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, asking them to re-open their investigation into the prison on Imrali Island. Here is an article with a template letter and some emails of senior CPT staff. Here is the general contact information for the CPT. Compose your own letter mentioning Imam or even phone their office in Strasbourg. 
  2. Email your MP and AMs asking them to pressure the UK government to take action on this urgent matter by putting pressure on Turkey and the CPT. You can find contact details for your MP here and your AMs here. We have already had fantastic support from Plaid Cymru so your efforts are probably best spent contacting MPs/AMs from other parties. Ask them to get their party to formally support the hunger strikers. And remember, not only do you have a constituency AM but also four regional AMs representing you. 
  3. Contact Jeremy Hunt asking him to act on this matter as a matter of emergency and to meet with his Turkish contacts to demand immediate action to end the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan. His email is huntj@parliament.uk and the general Foreign Office contacts are near the bottom of this page. 
  4. If you are in a union or a political party try and get a version of this model motion passed by your branch, try and get your union branch to affiliate with the union-backed Freedom For Öcalan campaign and ask your party to take decisive and pragmatic action to support the hunger strikers at the highest level.

Imam has touched the hearts and lives of so many people in South Wales and beyond. The inspiring Kurdish struggle for democracy, gender equality and ecological justice have reached even further. The world must stand up now to defend Imam and the progressive Kurdish revolution, lest we lose them both.

Biji Kurdistan! Cymru am byth!


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