In front of the Cell of Atonement at Sheridan Circle
March 7, 2001
Seven years and two days ago, Leyla Zana was arrested at the door of the Turkish parliament building in Ankara, Turkey. Nine months and three days later, she was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A duly and popularly elected representative, she was consigned to serve time behind bars.
What had Leyla Zana done to deserve such a punishment? Who sat in her judgement? Did they ever think the verdict would stand the test of time? This vigil and this gathering are a proof of what went wrong both at her arrest and later at her hearing. The friends of liberty all over the world were incensed by the Turkish government.
Seven zealous prosecutors of the State Security Courts had accused her of, among other things, speaking in an illegal language (they did not bother to name it, such is the depth of disrespect for the Kurdish people in Turkey), addressing a standing committee of the United Congress and being a member of an illegal organization.
The judges of the State Security Courts, two civilians and one military, concurred. Only the fear of alienating the European public opinion — lest Europe shut out Turkey of its deliberations for membership with hefty financial gains, saved Leyla Zana and her parliamentarian friends from the danger of being executed by hanging.
A long list of irregularities had always marred the case of Leyla Zana and her friends from the very beginning.
Coming into this world as a Kurd is not illegal in Turkey. But growing up as such or wanting to remain so is. To that crime, Leyla Zana pled guilty. For that crime she accepted her sentence with courageous stoicism and noted, it is a price she is paying for democracy. A few years later, to the offers of release if she feigned illness, she said no, never. For her politics was a calling to serve a higher good. The Kurds were the object of this commitment and love.
Despite being violated by violence of all kinds by the various branches of the Turkish government, Leyla Zana never, for a moment, wavered in her commitment to nonviolence. She said she wanted peace but no war, brotherhood but no enmity and equality without resentment.
In her closing remarks at what many believed was a Kangaroo trial, she said, she wanted the boundaries of freedom and democracy expanded and the dominance of Turkish race over the Kurdish one ended. She wanted friendship to be given premium and hatred eradicated.
There was no one in Turkey to take Leyla Zana and her friends’ offer of olive branch as duly elected Kurdish representatives in a country that lived a war but thirsted for peace. Arrows sharpened with hatred were unleashed on the Kurdish resistance fighters and voices such as Zana’s were locked behind closed doors and closed prisons.
A devastating war that could have spared an overwhelming number of Kurds the loss of their loved ones and the Turks their treasure, the loss of which became more than apparent in the last month’s financial crisis, was waged not to resolve an issue but only to sow the seeds of hatred between the Turks and the Kurds for generations to come.
This vigil, cold and difficult at the beginning and long and taxing as may be it’s future, has my support. It’s goal of restoring to the Kurdish people their choice of representatives through nonviolent vigilance, here across from Turkish Ambassador’s residence, is in the best tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King.
Behind me stands a replica of a Turkish prison cell that serves as a reminder of how fragile freedom is. If duly elected representatives can be thrown among these four walls, what can be the lot of the average Kurd in a place like Turkey? Thousands have been locked up and so far there seems to be no end in sight.
But vigils like these make it impossible for the oppressors of freedom to hide behind fancy words like democracy and display the practice that is tyranny. A champion in this field, Mahatma Gandhi said it best when he noted, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
The participants of this vigil will go through these cycles as well and in the end win the battle for the beautiful in the human spirit. The love of freedom has always triumphed over the hatred of one race over the other.
It is Kurds and Kurdistan now and It is Kurds and Kurdistan forever.