Starved voices neglected by international community


Kurdish political prisoners go into day 45 of their hunger strike

As the Muslim world celebrates the Feast of the Sacrifice, more than 700 Kurdish political prisoners continue their hunger strike against the Turkish government. Today marks the prisoners 45th day. Their health is deteriorating rapidly and many may now have suffered irreversible damage but their conviction is unrelenting.

The initial catalyst for the hunger strikes was launched on September 12th by dozens of Kurdish detainees. Their act of passive resistance was replicated in 48 prisons all over Turkey by other Kurds who like them, were unlawfully detained under the pretext of having links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Several high ranking leaders from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have also joined the strikers, over 50 of whom belong to the BDP and are currently detained with no recourse to the law.

The Kurdish detainees have three basic demands but with lasting repercussions should they be met and implemented, not just for the Kurdish issue in Turkey but for Turkey itself. The demands include the release of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the right to a Kurdish language education and the use of Kurdish in the Turkish justice system.

It is with great regret to concede that the international media have given minimal exposure to this strike. Leading superpowers and governments have also neglected to address the issue of these 700 starving and quite literally dying detainees. Foreign policy and geopolitical dynamics would dictate that Turkey should be left to address this matter alone with limited political pressure. That seems to be the line the international community have silently toed.

Social media and in particular Twitter, has brought the cause some attention but arguably it is not enough to spread the message to the people who have the power and authority to intervene. On Twitter many assert that this hunger strike is the detainees’ last resort; it is all they have left in their power to bring a voice to their demands. The effectiveness of the hunger strike is questionable however taking into consideration that the Turkish Human Rights Association states that over 140 prisoners have died in Turkey as a result of hunger strikes since 1980. Is this really the best method of non-violent resistance to seek the world’s attention? Some contest that it is not get to the world’s attention but to apply political pressure to restart Oslo talks with Ocalan. But it is to get the world’s attention. If the public are unaware of what is happening, the human rights violations or if they don’t support the cause then governments are under no pressure to intervene.

The harsh reality is that even when governments are under pressure to intervene, they do not because of political affiliations and personal interest. Syria is the best case in hand. The slaughter of innocent men women and children continue indiscriminately on a daily basis. The world has focused its attention to that part of the Middle East yet the pleas of human rights organizations, the US and other superpowers and the Syrian people, are all falling on deaf ears.

Turkey’s Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin appealed to the hunger strikers during a visit to Sincan prison saying, “For the sake of your own body, your own health, the people who love you and whom you love, stop this action.” But there was no mention of whether or not their demands would be met nor is there any sign of a compromise.

The Kurdish question has dominated Turkish-Kurdish discourse for many years but to no avail. The Turkish government’s blatant disregard for its Kurdish population that makes up almost one fifth of its entirety and its largest ethnic minority has fuelled the violence that hinders progress on this important matter. The arrest and detention of Ocalan in 1999, the leader of the PKK continues to be a point of contention and prolongs heightened tensions. The PKK leader and symbol of the Kurdish struggle against the Turkish state is seldom seen with minimal access to the law or the outside world.

They say one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Ocalan and the PKK are considered a terrorist entity by both Turkey and the United States which makes dealing with them very difficult. But it should be noted that once upon a time Nelson Mandela was deemed a terrorist. He went on to become the president of South Africa. It begs the question however whether the demand for Ocalan’s release is a realistic one and whether a hunger strike is the best weapon of choice.

Those detained are all intelligent and active individuals who can better serve the Kurdish cause alive than dead. Should their fate be death, which is very likely, the media will allow them no more coverage than it did whilst they were on strike. The hunger strikes will not bring them the justice they seek. It is better for them to push for a more concentrated effort that will mobilise the Kurdish community in all parts of Greater Kurdistan, call on Kurds in the Diaspora to compel the governments in their host countries to pressurise Turkey to address the Kurdish question. They need to continue being advocates. There will be no success in the mourning of more Kurds. Hunger strikes will not move the international community or the Erdoğan government to act and this doesn’t make one any less of a patriot or advocate for the Kurdish cause through this admission.

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