By David A. Korn
June 1, 1996
First came the sound of shattering glass. Then the office door burst open and a dozen beefy men, several with shotguns at the ready, charged through it. As he turned from his desk to learn what was happening a command rang out: “Freeze!” He was grabbed, thrown face first against the wall, searched, then handcuffed and led off to jail.
The date was Friday, April 12,1996. The place was Washington, D.C., a small commercial and office building on upper Connecticut Avenue, but he might have imagined himself back in Ankara, or in any city of his native Turkey. Still, one reassuring thought ran through his mind: This is America. I won’t be tortured.
He was known as Kani Xulam and he was the Director of the American Kurdish Information Network. In the three years since he had taken up residence in the nation’s capital and set up AKIN, as it became known, as a legally registered non-profit organization, he had become a highly effective spokesman for the cause of Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
He had come to Washington from Los Angeles, where his parents and brothers were established amid a small but prospering Kurdish-American community. He was tall and slender and though exceedingly polite and slightly reserved had a warm friendly smile and a firm handshake. His wire rimmed glasses marked him as the intellectual his friends knew him to be; if you gave Kani Xulam a book, they found, he would actually read it and then want to talk with you about it. He had worked for the Kurdish cause since his student days on scholarship at the University of Toronto where he was the most active Kurd on campus, and represented Kurdistan at a model U.N. session.
The task he assumed in the nation’s capital was far more ambitious. It was to make known to the American public and to the United States government, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the vast and intricate executive branch, the oppression inflicted by the government of Turkey upon its millions of Kurdish citizens, the denial of cultural and political rights, the arrests, the torture and the killings. It was to argue for a political solution to the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds, instead of the military one that was being persued by the Turkish army. And to plead and cajole for a change, even a small one, in the U.S. policy of massively arming Turkey with the helicopter gunships, artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers that were being used in the wanton destruction of Kurdish villages and the devastation of the Kurdish countryside in southeastern Turkey.
Kani Xulam’s arms were the modem and the fax machine. He bombarded his targets with press releases, petitions, and newsletters. At the start he had a lot to learn about how things get done in Washington, but he learned fast. His was basically a one man operation and certainly not that of the typical Washington lobbyist. He didn’t sport expensive suits or alligator shoes or Gucci briefcases. He couldn’t afford them. He worked eighteen hour days, lived on next to nothing, and walked the two miles each way between his office and his small downtown apartment. He was totally dedicated to the cause.
He found few friends in the foreign policy bureaucracy of the executive branch, ruled, as he discovered, by a long-entrenched and stubbornly pro-Turkish policy. But he made headway on the Hill, established wide ranging contacts there, even got passed a Sense of Congress Resolution calling on the U.S. government to withhold arms supplies and press Turkey to observe international human rights standards and guarantee democratic political rights to its Kurdish minority. He joined enthusiastically in the work of Washington human rights organizations and became a respected member of that community.
He became a formidable competitor of Turkey’s lavishly financed propaganda machine, a David pitted against the Goliath of high-priced Washington and New York public relations and law firms hired by the Turkish government to cast a rosy glow over Turkey’s dismal reality. The Turkish Embassy didn’t like it at all. It considered Kani Xulam dangerously effective. It put out word that AKIN was an operation run by the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which since 1984 has been leading an armed rebellion against the government of Turkey and which the State Department – at Turkish government instigation – has labeled a terrorist organization. The Turks claimed that Kani Xulam was the PKK’s chief representative in the united States and, therefore, a terrorist. They wanted AKIN closed down and Kani Xulam removed from the scene.
Ever since he opened AKIN, the Turks had watched him closely. Their review of his records apparently led them to believe that he was using an assumed name. Human rights advocates and AKIN supporters are persuaded that the Turkish Embassy passed this and other more serious allegations against Kani Xulam to the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security and that it was at Turkish government urging that the Department began secretly to investigate him. On February 22, 1996 he was put under FBI surveillance. On April 11, the day before his arrest, the FBI sent an agent in disguise to his office, an attractive blond woman in her thirties who claimed to be visiting from Boston and seeking information on the Kurds for a term paper her nephew was writing.
But the arrest warrant that State Department security officers produced as they handcuffed Kani Xulam’s hands behind his back, as though he were a violent and dangerous offender, spoke only of his having made false statements on a U.S. passport application. For someone with no criminal record, like Kani Xulam, the charge carried a recommended maximum penalty of six months in prison. For that, federal law enforcement agencies would hardly send a dozen heavily armed agents to break down doors. What else was it then that the Turkish Embassy told U.S. authorities they should expect to find at AKIN’s offices? A cache of arms, explosives, or drugs? Discovering none of those things, federal agents carted off the organization’s computers, files, and even petty cash on hand.
Kani Xulam’s faith that, in America, he wouldn’t be tortured turned out to be justified. But he also learned that, even in America, the rules aren’t followed scrupulously and the courts don’t automatically protect the rights of the accused. When he asked to call an attorney he was told he could do so at the police station where he was to be taken. At the police station he was told he could do so at the District of Columbia jail. And at the D.C. jail he was put straight into solitary confinement. It wasn’t until the next day, some 18 hours after his arrest, that he was able to talk to a public defender attorney and get her to notify his family in California. In Federal Court hearings the following Monday and Wednesday, judges denied his request for release on bail, disregarding both the fact that he had no previous criminal record and character witness testimony given by three highly respected members of the Washington community.
Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Nuzhet Kandemir, exulted over the arrest and the court’s action in denying bail. At a lunch with reporters on April 17, Kandemir called AKIN a terrorist group and expressed the hope that U.S. authorities would close it down. He added: “We have been very unhappy with a lot of activities of AKIN on a daily basis which were very harmful to Turkish interests and this administration knows (that) quite well.”
Kani Xulam found that prison conditions in America could be as bad as what one might expect in Turkey. His solitary confinement cell was full of cockroaches. The bed was a metal frame with no mattress or pillow (though later he was given a foam rubber matting half his height). He wasn’t allowed to make phone calls or receive mail, and the jail had no library to draw on. He sat for seven days looking at the walls and talking with cockroaches that came to eye him inquisitively. Still, he was a little apprehensive when released from solitary “into the general population” (as the prison expression goes). He had heard stories about prison violence, and the reputation of the D.C. jail was far from reassuring. His first cellmate was a disturbed young man in his late teens who at times muttered incoherently and at other times loudly described the details of making love to his girlfriend. But a subsequent cellmate, also in his late teens, turned out to be a follower of Louis Farrakhan. Kani instructed him in Islamic prayers and in reading the Koran in Arabic and the young man held him in reverence.
A little over two weeks after his arrest, Kani was packed off to Los Angeles, where he had filed his passport application and where he was to be tried. The trip there was the worst of his time in jail. It lasted ten days and it turned out to be a kind of grand tour of the American prison system, a crazy odyssey that took him from the D.C. jail in turn to more than half a dozen federal and state prisons in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada and California before ending up at the federal penitentiary in Los Angeles. It consisted of long bus and airplane rides shackled to a seat alongside dozens or sometimes hundreds of other prisoners. Travel from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma was by Boeing 747; the Oklahoma prison had its own airstrip and the plane taxied right up to the prison gate to disgorge its passengers into the care of waiting guards. At each stop prisoners were searched, fingerprinted, and photographed. They were routinely awakened at 2 or 3 a.m. to be “processed” for travel that did not begin until late morning. At the federal prison in Las Vegas, Kani was put in solitary confinement after speaking up to calm cellmates near riot in their frustration at not being fed and allowed to sleep. Unlike the D.C. Jail, however, the Las Vegas prison had a library. He read through two thick volumes and considered his brief stay there almost a pleasure.
But the most memorable leg of the trip came near the end. It was a six hour bus ride without rest stop or on board access to a toilet. Prisoners urinated in their seats and the urine sloshed up and down the floor of the vehicle as it wound its way along the road.
While Kani Xulam was being shipped back and forth across the country like a piece of lost luggage, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was considering an appeal filled by his attorney, Daniel Alcorn, of the lower court’s denial of bond. The Court’s ruling was unambiguously sharp. Judges Patricia Wald and David Tatel wrote: “We cannot but conclude that a serious error has been made here. A first time offender accused of a nonviolent crime with strong community ties and respected members of that community willing to supervise his release in any manner the court finds necessary…is incarcerated pending trial, despite the fact that his entire lifestyle and mission strongly suggest he will stay in place, and his charged misdeed (if, indeed, he is found guilty) was to falsify information on a passport in order to remain in this country.”
Kani Xulam was released from Los Angeles federal prison on $50,000 bond on May 15, 1996 and he was taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and set free days later after filing an application for political asylum. His Los Angeles attorney, Peter Schey, President of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, summed up the defense’s view of the government’s actions: “…the United States Government’s criminal and deportation charges against Kani Xulam are politically motivated and were encouraged by the Turkish Government. The United States Government is more concerned with its strategic relations with the undemocratic Government of Turkey than with the human and democratic rights of the Kurdish minority in Turkey…”
Even before Kani Xulam’s release, AKIN was back in business under volunteer management. It is still waiting, however, for the government to give it back its files, computers, and petty cash.