By Kani Xulam
December 5, 1996
December 8, 1996 will mark the second anniversary of Leyla Zana’s formal imprisonment in Turkey’s Ankara Closed Prison. She was arrested by police in the Turkish parliament on March 5, 1994, after her mostly Turkish colleagues voted to lift her parliamentary immunity and that of several other Kurdish deputies.
Leyla Zana was the first Kurdish woman ever to serve in the Turkish parliament. She was elected to serve the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir by an overwhelming margin on October 20, 1991. She had run a campaign of validating the civil rights of the Kurds.
In Diyarbakir, Ankara, Paris, Bonn, London and Washington or for that matter wherever she went, she advocated an end to the civil war raging in southeast Turkey. On May 17, 1993, she was invited to Washington together with Ahmet Turk, another Kurdish parliamentarian, to brief the members of the United States Congress at the Helsinki Commission. The day after, at another briefing, this time at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mr. Morton Abramowitz, the former United States Ambassador to Ankara, asked his guests what they meant when they said at the commission briefing: “[We are] dedicated to advocating the rights of the Kurds by political means?”
Mr. Turk noted the existence of the Kurds in Turkey as an historical truism and the absence of their rights in the present Turkish constitution. He went on, “Some 15 million Kurds live in Turkey that has a population of 58 million people, but they are deprived of their most basic human rights. Their very identity is not recognized; the Kurdish language is banned. We seek to get back these political rights of ours through our political work.”
Leyla Zana said that in Turkish Kurdistan the international codes are suspended to keep the struggle of the Kurds for political rights at bay. “In Batman, [a Kurdish city in Turkish Kurdistan] the police have changed the traffic lights combination from the standard, red, yellow and green at the city streets to red, yellow and blue. The red, yellow and green happen to be Kurdish national colors; by changing the color green to blue, the Turkish authorities hope to suppress the Kurdish yearnings for rights. We want the Kurdish colors and we want the International standards too.”
The speeches Leyla gave in Washington were used against her in the State Security Court in Ankara in her sentencing on December 8, 1994. To be sure, there were other charges, but all stemming from her desire to make the lot of the Kurds better. The 16 page indictment cited a speech here, a speech there and another one somewhere else. The panel of Turkish civil and military judges decided Leyla had spoken too much. She was given a fifteen year sentence.
Last year, the Norwegian parliament nominated Leyla Zana for the Nobel Peace prize. Her name reportedly was among the last five finalists. This year, the European Parliament awarded her with the 1995 Sakharov Freedom award. Dr. Klaus Hansch, the President of the European Parliament, speaking for the 15 country European union, had this to say: “In awarding the prize to Leyla Zana, we are honoring a woman of exceptional courage, dynamism, intelligence and fortitude.” The city of Rome recently chose her as its honorary citizen.
The former first lady of France, Madame Danielle Mitterand, has kept a steady correspondence with the imprisoned Kurdish parliamentarian as have her two children who now live in exile in Europe. Prominent visitors are barred from visiting her, though the Turkish authorities could not refuse John Shattuck, the U. S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights.
Last month, in a news-hour interview on PBS, this year’s Nobel peace laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta, was asked how he felt about receiving such a high honor. Expressing his gratitude for the award, he added, he could think of others who were worthy of the award that had just been given to him and he cited, “Leyla Zana from Kurdistan who is now in jail,” as one of his choices.
In the United States Congress, on May 17, 1993, addressing the members of the Helsinki Commission, Mrs. Zana had described the Kurdish question in words that were troubling then as they are today. “To have you glimpse at the toll the Kurds have suffered, just last year alone, reminds one of Elie Wiesel and his reflections on the Jewish Holocaust. 300 villages have been burnt. …” Today, the number of destroyed villages has risen to 3,134, according to figures by the respected Turkish Human Rights Foundation.