HONORABLE BOB FILNER OF CALIFORNIA
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 29, 2000
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce a resolution to ask for the freedom of Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak as well as the lifting of the ban on the Kurdish language and culture in Turkey. The names that I just cited are those of Kurdish parliamentarians who have been in prison for the last six years. The language and culture are that of the Kurds, an indigenous people of the Middle East who live on their ancient land called Kurdistan. These representatives are in prison because they are Kurds. The Kurds are not free because their land is ruled by Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
This body has previously heard of the name Leyla Zana — according to the New York Times, “the most famous Kurdish dissident in the world.” This country has heard of the Kurds, because Saddam Hussein gassed them with his chemical and biological weapons in 1988 and threatened to do so again in 1991. But neither this country nor this body has really paid any attention to the plight of the Kurds living as they still do on their ancient lands and still persecuted now, even as I address you, by the governments in Ankara, Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to restrict my commentary today to Turkey, because it is a country we honor as an ally, we support as a friend and we favor as a partner. Turkey boasts of having a sophisticated U.S. arsenal in its inventory: M-16 machine guns, M-60 battle tanks, Cobra attack helicopters and F-16 fighter planes. American Special Forces train Turkish commandos in Turkey. Turkish leaders are fond of referring to their people as an “army nation”. Talks are now underway to supply Turkey with an additional 145 attack helicopters worth 4 billion dollars.
Is Turkey really worthy of these investments? Have our fighter planes, attack helicopters, battle tanks and machine guns protected the liberties of its citizens? Why are we training Turkish commandos who are known to behead their victims and haul their dead bodies behind armored vehicles? In Turkey today, I note with trepidation Mr. Speaker, liberty is under assault. Cultural genocide is the law of the land. A way of life known as “Kurdish” is disappearing at an alarming rate.
Mr. Speaker, we were not always indifferent to the plight of the Kurds. Our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, supported the right of subject peoples to self-determination. In an address to the Senate on January 22, 1917, he said: “No nation should seek to extend its policy over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful.”
Three months later, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies. The war cry, “making the world safe for democracy”, resonated with subject peoples all over the world and families from North Africa to Central Europe named their sons after our President. But the prophetic words of President Wilson were disregarded, especially in the Ottoman provinces. The Armenians were massacred and the Kurds were subdued after the emergence of the Turkish Republic. What followed has been chronicled as nothing other than a slow-motion genocide.
In Turkey, a people known to historians as “the Kurds” and a land known to geographers as “Kurdistan” disappeared from the official discourse over night, just one year after the inception of the young Turkish republic. The Kurds, the Turkish officials noted, were not really Kurds, but “mountain Turks” and their land was not really Kurdistan, but eastern Turkey. This act of social engineering and historical revisionism has been propagated as the law of the land ever since. Thousands of Kurds have died in rebellion after rebellion. Millions have been uprooted. Some wish to raise a “Rest in Peace” sign over the entire Kurdish nation.
Perhaps of all stories that have come out of the Kurdish land administered by the Turks, that of Leyla Zana captures the essence of what it means to be a Kurd in Turkey. She was born in 1961. She grew up in a small Kurdish village near Farqin. Her earliest recollections of the Turks were either as tax collectors or as soldiers. In elementary school, the lone Turkish teacher she had told her that she should learn Turkish because it was the language of civilization. She went to school for only three years. She worked on a farm and helped out in the house and occasionally heard the name of Mehdi Zana, her future husband, as the rising star of Kurdish politics.
In 1976, she married Mehdi Zana. She moved to the largest Kurdish city in the world, Amed, AKA Diyarbakir, in northern Kurdistan. In 1977, Mehdi Zana was elected to the post of mayor in the city. The Turkish officials were appalled. An ardent Kurdish nationalist had managed to earn the trust of his fellow Kurds. Amed was put under siege. Its funds were frozen. Mayor Zana appealed to his European colleagues. French mayors responded. A gift of thirty buses and trucks filled with office supplies were delivered. For a short while, the bus fares in the city were abolished. Leyla Zana’s education in politics began in these tumultuous years.
On September 12, 1980, Kenan Evren, a general in the Turkish army, declared himself the supreme leader of the country. He deposed the elected government and dissolved the parliament. His soldiers then began arresting the dissidents, especially the Kurds. The rising star of Kurdish politics, Mehdi Zana, was high on their list. Twelve days later, he was arrested without charge. For the next eight years, he would be tortured in the infamous Diyarbakir Military Prison. He would witness the death of 57 of his friends. Through it all, he did not break, he endured as did his wife and children.
Mehdi Zana was kept in prison for three additional years in various Turkish prisons in Turkey proper. He has chronicled his ordeals in a book entitled, “Prison # 5”, now available in our nation’s bookstores (as well as on amazon.com.) I had the fortune of meeting this nonviolent champion of Kurdish rights in 1998 and was humbled by the generosity of his feelings towards his tormentors. He did not seek revenge. He wanted peace for himself and his family and his people. In words that still haunt me, he urged me to speak out against the slow motion genocide against the Kurds. “The Armenians were massacred,” he said. “The Kurds are being put to permanent sleep,” he added.
Mr. Speaker, Leyla Zana’s schooling consisted of adversity, torture, humiliation, and state sanctioned persecution that has never slackened in all of her life. She had given birth to Ronay, a son, when Mehdi was the mayor of Amed and would later give birth to Ruken, a daughter, right after Mehdi Zana’s arrest. She would learn Turkish the hard way from the police who harassed her for being the wife of a popular mayor and the Courts who ruled that he was a traitor and deserved death.
In 1988, she herself was thrown into jail and endured abuse, humiliation, and torture for organizing the wives of Kurdish political prisoners to demand visitation rights. Although behind bars, the authorities, fearing a chain reaction, had given in to their demands. Leyla Zana has related this brush of hers with the police as a turning point in her awakening as a Kurdish political activist. She began reading voraciously and wrote for various publications. In these years as well, she passed the proficiency exam for her high school diploma and became the first Kurdish woman to do so in Amed.
These were the years when the wall in Berlin came down, the Soviet Union let go of its subject nations, the Cold War that had dominated the international politics was supplanted with a rapprochement between the East and the West. The winds of change that brought democracy to former communist nations, people now hoped would also visit the lands administered by “our dictators” in such places as South Africa, Indonesia and Turkey.
To be sure, South Africa has made its transition to democracy. Just last year, the official world welcomed one of its smallest nations to its fold, the people of East Timor. But the Kurds, thus far, have been kept off from this forward march of liberty. The adversaries of the Kurds, and their misguided friends, have managed to define them as the misfits of the world. This cause of liberty is a just one. The veil of oppression over the Kurds must come down.
There was a time when the prospects of peace and reconciliation between the Kurds and the Turks almost became a reality. On October 20, 1991, the country held its general election. 22 Kurds were elected to the Turkish parliament. Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak were part of this group. Hopes were raised that these duly elected representatives would be the interlocutors with the Turks and peace and justice would once again visit the land of the Kurds.
But these hopes were dashed when Mehmet Sincar, one newly elected Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, was murdered in broad daylight on September 3, 1993. A year later, six Kurdish parliamentarians were arrested for their advocacy of the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish Question. Another six, feeling the sword of Damocles hanging on their shoulders, fled abroad to seek political asylum in Europe. The remaining nine Kurdish deputies either resigned from their posts or changed parties in order to save their lives.
An all out war was declared with devastating results. Turkish troops using American weapons wanted to silence the Kurdish resistance once and for all. The Kurdish cease-fire offers were spurned. The Kurdish villagers were forced to either take up arms against their kin, the Kurdish rebels, or face the consequences of destruction of their villages. 3,432 Kurdish villages have been destroyed. 37,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed. 3 million Kurds have become refugees.
Mr. Speaker, three years ago, my distinguished colleague from Illinois, Mr. Porter, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter signed by 153 members of the 105th Congress to President Clinton urging him to do intervene on behalf of Leyla Zana. A year later, he visited her in prison in Turkey and urged the Turkish authorities to do the same. Unfortunately, nothing came of these efforts. Her imprisonment continues and the intransigence of the Turks is still at an all time high.
The letter dated October 30, 1997, addresses some of the concerns of my resolution and I would like to read it for the record,
“Dear Mr. President:
We write to draw your attention to the tragic situation of Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman ever elected to the Turkish parliament. Mrs. Zana, the mother of two children, was chosen to represent the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir by an overwhelming margin in October of 1991. She was arrested by Turkish authorities on March 2, 1994 in the Parliament building and subsequently prosecuted for what Turkish authorities have labeled “separatist speech,” stemming from the exercise of her right to free speech in the defense of the rights of Kurdish people. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 1994. She remains imprisoned in Ankara today.
One of the charges against Mrs. Zana was her 1993 appearance, here in Washington, before the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress. We find it outrageous that although she was invited to participate at the request of Members of Congress, her participation was one of the activities that led to her imprisonment.
Mrs. Zanaís pursuit of democratic change through nonviolence was honored by the European Parliament which unanimously awarded her the 1995 Sakharov Peace Prize. In addition, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concern about her case.
Mr. President, Turkey is an important partner of the United States, a NATO member, and a major recipient of our foreign aid, but its abuse of its Kurdish citizens and their legitimately elected representatives is unacceptable. Mrs. Zanaís majority Kurdish constituency gave her the mandate to represent them, but the government of Turkey has made an unconscionable effort to stop her. Her voice should not be silenced. This is just one of many cases in which the Turkish government has used the power of the state to abuse people based on their political beliefs.
We ask that you and your administration raise Mrs. Zanaís case with the Turkish authorities at the highest level and seek her immediate and unconditional release, so that we may once again welcome her to our shores.”
Mr. Speaker, Amnesty International has since adopted Leyla Zana and her duly elected parliamentarian colleagues as prisoners of conscience. In both 1995 and 1998, the Nobel Committee that assigns its prestigious Peace Prize to people who embody our deepest aspirations for a more tolerant world acknowledged that Leyla Zana was one of their finalists. The city of Rome has awarded her honorary citizenship. European organizations have bestowed on her numerous awards of their own.
Mr. Speaker, in 1867, one of our own, Frederick Douglas, in an “Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage,” summarized the situation of his kin which is akin to what this resolution is demanding from the Turkish government. Reflecting on Mr. Douglas’ historical remarks, I was reminded of my encounter with Mehdi Zana and how he, too, intoned the same sentiments as our own great emancipator. Mr. Douglas wrote, “[We] have marvelously survived all the exterminating forces of slavery, and have emerged at the end of two hundred and fifty years of bondage, not morose, misanthropic, and revengeful, but cheerful, hopeful, and forgiving. [We] now stand before Congress and the country, not complaining of the past, but simply asking for a better future.”
Mr. Speaker, my resolution supported at this time by my esteemed colleagues, John E. Porter, Christopher Smith, Frank Wolf, Anna Eshoo, David Bonior and Frank Pallone Jr. calls for a better future for the Kurds. In that future, public service is not rewarded with punishment but honored with gratitude. In that future, languages are not banned but cultivated as a gift of God to a people and of a people to its offspring. And only in that future, Mr. Speaker, lies the promise of peace and justice for the Kurds and a brighter future with the Turks. I ask my friends to support us as we help the peoples of Turkey to leap into the future for the good of themselves as well as our battered humanity.