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Wales has a duty to stand in solidarity with the Kurdish hunger strikers

20 Mar 2019 5 minute read
Kurdish-Welshman Imam Sis from Newport (centre)

Delyth Jewell, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East

Today, Plaid Cymru will ask our National Assembly to support the Kurdish hunger strikers.

We are calling the motion Imam’s Motion, after Kurdish-Welshman Imam Sis from Newport who has been on hunger strike since 17 December. He is currently living on vitamin B1 and B12 tablets, and one fresh lemonade a day, supplemented with herbal teas and salty water.

It all began with Leyla Güven, a democratically elected Kurdish MP to the Turkish parliament, who has now been on hunger strike for over 120 days and is nearing death.

Her hunger strike calls for an end to the isolation of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) who has been held mostly in solitary confinement by Turkey since 1999.

The hunger strike calls for Turkey to respect its own laws and international human rights obligations and permit Öcalan visits from family and legal team.

Over 300 Kurds have now joined her on indefinite hunger strike in Turkish prisons, Kurdistan, Europe and North America. In Strasbourg, 14 Kurds have been on indefinite hunger strike since 17 December to pressure the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to fulfil its duties and pay a visit to check on the situation of Öcalan.

This weekend, Zülküf Gezen, a political prisoner, became the first hunger striker to die.

With a population of over 40 million, the Kurdish people are arguably one of the largest stateless nations in the world and have suffered great oppression – particularly under the state of Turkey. There are currently 8,000 Kurds held as political prisoners.

A hundred years ago Kurds were promised their own state of Kurdistan, but great power and regional politics instead saw Kurdistan divided between four states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In all of these states Kurdish rights have been denied. In Iraq on March 16 1988 infamously the Saddam regime perpetrated the Halabja chemical attack, an act of genocide resulting in 5000 deaths.

In Turkey, for decades a policy of forced assimilation saw Kurdish people denied language, cultural, and political rights. The Turkish government even denied there was such a thing as a Kurd calling them “Mountain Turks”. Until 1991 the words “Kurds”, “Kurdistan” and “Kurdish” were banned.

It was this denial of rights that led to a full-scale insurgency beginning in August 15 1984 when the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) announced a Kurdish uprising. The bloody conflict between Turkey and PKK saw more than 40,000 die, the majority Kurdish civilians. The European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey for thousands of human rights abuses including systematic executions of civilians, torturing, forced displacements by Turkish security forces, destroyed villages, food embargoes placed on villages, arbitrary arrests, murdered and disappeared Kurdish journalists, activists and politicians.

Since then, leader Öcalan – who imitated the shift from a predominantly military strategy to a peaceful political solution orientated one, has been kept in isolation and in March 2015, Turkish President Erdoğan declared dialogue with Öcalan was over and Turkey no longer had a “Kurdish problem”.

It is believed by many that freedom for Öcalan is the precondition for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey and the international campaign for freedom for Öcalan and reconvening of peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK has support from academics, lawyers, trade unionists and activists worldwide including Noam Chomsky, Professor Angela Davis and Desmond Tutu. The international campaign for his freedom has already received 10 million signatures.

Foreign affairs may be a matter currently reserved to the UK Government but the Welsh Government now has a Cabinet Minister for International Relations. Surely it’s incumbent on the National Assembly and Welsh Government to recognise and support the part of a Newport man is currently playing in an international struggle for justice, equality and human rights?

The Welsh Government and this Assembly has the power to make representations on any matter affecting Wales. Surely any progressive member of this Senedd can support the reasonable step of ensuring that the Welsh Government on behalf of the Assembly writes a letter to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture calling for the committee to visit Imrali Prison to assess the conditions of Abdullah Öcalan.

That is all we are asking today. Turkey is a signatory to several international human rights treaties, including the European Convention of Human Rights as a member of the Council of Europe. The conditions in which Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan is held are understood to contravene the Turkish state’s legal obligations in relation to human rights.

Fundamental Human rights obligations must be upheld in Turkey as the first step towards the ultimate goal that we all want to see – a peaceful, political solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey.

Today, Imam is on day 94 of his hunger strike. He is now finding it difficult to swallow liquids and will almost certainly die between 100 to 150 days if his hunger strike continues.

We are running out of time.

Let Wales be the first nation – through its government and Parliament – to show its solidarity with the Kurdish hunger strikers.

As two small stateless nations, we must stand together. Our struggles for recognition and autonomy is a struggle that we share. When democratically-elected representatives are arrested and imprisoned for the very act of representing their people, we must speak and stand up. The Europe and the world we want to see cannot be one where social justice and democracy is forsaken for the sake of totalitarianism.

In the face of the bravery, courage and leadership demonstrated by Imam, the hunger strikers and all the Kurdish people, Wales has a duty to stand in solidarity with them all for freedom against oppression.

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