Friday, June 26, 1998

My name is Mehdi Zana. I’d like to start by expressing my appreciation to the organizers of the International Day against Torture, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Committee for this briefing and for bringing the suffering of the survivors of torture to the attention of the US Congress and the public.

I am a Kurd from Turkey. I was the mayor of Diyarbakir, the most important city in the region where the Kurds live, in Turkish Kurdistan. Starting in 1980, I was imprisoned under conditions some of you might find hard to imagine. I was imprisoned with other Kurds, some of whom are dead today. I was tortured to such an extent that I continue to suffer from the aftereffects. My imprisonment was due to my having repeatedly taken positions in favor of something that seems elementary to me: the rights of Kurds.

What did we ask for ? The right to speak our own language, to learn it in school and to have newspapers, radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish. We want to live as complete human beings, with respect to our dignity, our personality and our identity. This is why we are imprisoned, why we are tortured and why we are killed.

In 1977 elections took place at the city hall in Diyarbakir. At the time, Diyarbakir had a population of 225,000; today it has more then 1.5 million. I was elected from fourteen candidates, with about 54 percent of the vote. The Turkish authorities, the prefect and the military commander were appalled by my election but I was elected democratically.

During the three years that I headed the municipality, I did my best to ameliorate the situation of the population. I did so despite the hostility of the local and national Turkish authorities, who subjected the city to a genuine economic blockade.

Those who had elected me, simple people from the working class, soon realized that a dedicated municipal government was capable of accomplishing a great deal for the people, in spite of adversity. On the other hand, the well- to-do upper class was distressed that such a prestigious city might fall into the hands of the rabble, the “uncultured, the uneducated ….”. While the political situation in the country grew more and more chaotic, extreme groups on the left and right were outdoing one another in their efforts to destabilize the state, often through violence.

On September 12, 1980, under the pretext of restoring order, the army provoked another coup with it’s customary brutality. Parliament was dissolved and the political parties, associations and unions were banned. Through a plan established long before, all those who like the Kurds, leftists or Muslim partisans, did not fit into a patriotic profile defined by the military, suffered prison, torture, massacre or deportation.

On September 24, 1980, twelve days after the coup, I was arrested along with other Kurdish friends. We were driven directly to the military academy, where there were 40 cells in the basement. Each cell was 1.8 meters deep by 70 centimeters wide. The bed was a 40 centimeter wide board attached 30 centimeters above ground. When the door was shut, it felt like being closed up alive in a coffin. I could not extend my arms or take more than two steps. The board was so narrow, I was unable to lie on my back.

Two hours later, the guards came to look for me. They blindfolded me and pushed me forward. I head some soldiers saying, “Here comes Mehdi Zana.” They immediately went to work: About ten of them beat me up. Later I was taken back to my cell, still blindfolded and with my hands tied up.

A guard came by and asked me, “Are you a Turk or a Kurd?”

“A Kurd”. I said.

“Bravo. You are a courageous man”, and he left as he had come.

The same day, in the evening I suppose, they came back to get me, blindfolded me and beat me up again. The blows fell everywhere, as did the insults. During a break, one of the guards called out, “You piece of garbage. It’s been almost three years we have been waiting for this day, since you’ve been at the municipality. Now, not even God can save you …’. That session lasted half an hour. I felt their hatred for me. At the end of the session, one of them said, “This was only the welcome session.”

For two days they left me alone. On the third day, they came to get me again, they blindfolded me and tied up my hands and legs. The session started. First, the falaka, an old torture that has proved itself. They administer it with a stick or a bat on the soles of the feet. Every time I fainted, they splashed water on me and resumed the torture. After beating me hard on the soles of my feet, they threw me on the ground and stomped on my back one by one – there were a good forty of them. Finally they took me up to another room where they hung me up by my arms, nude and attached electric wires to my genitals and anus. When they turned on the current my whole body would tremble; they call this “doing the plane.” When I fainted, they would wake me up by kicking me with their boots.

This treatment lasted fifteen days. Every night at around one o’clock in the morning, a Kurdish guard came to take off the blindfold that I wore continuously and to give me something to drink. His presence was good for me. Then it started again, especially the electric torture. One day I heard the words “Mehdi Zana, what is this ignominy? Do you see what state you are in?” I recognized the voice of the general who commanded Diyarbakir. I did not respond. He started again. “Do you see what you have done to yourself?” I responded, “Sometimes you are at the bottom; sometime you are one top.” The blows came raining down again.

Most prisoners were subjected to the same treatment and worse. After arresting a fourteen year old boy, they threatened to rape him if he did not talk. So, the boy let loose a string of names, all of them false, because he did not know anything. Later he came to see me and asked how he could warn those whose names he had “given”.

During all of these torture sessions, music played continuously. And when the torturers hit or tortured a prisoner with particular intent, they lowered the music so that other prisoners could hear him screaming. The psychological pressure was extremely hard: If one of us refused to sign, they threatened to torture his wife: “You’ll see how we’ll make her sing.” Hearing the screams of a woman being tortured, one thinks “It’s my wife.” We also heard children screaming and thought, “They could be mine.”

There were also woman prisoners. Once one of the prisoners, Ali Sarigul, recognizing the voice of his wife screaming, started to bang his head on the wall like a demented person. Afterward, he died under torture.

I saw men beat to death in front of me. Multiple inmates, Kurdish political prisoners, Neci Demir, Rezi Aytur to name only a few, hung themselves in protest. Others, protesting their treatment, starved themselves to death in hunger strikes going on two months.

Those of us who lived, were frayed from lack of sleep and continuous torture. The pressure was permanent. After a month of this regime, I was separated from my friends and placed in solitary confinement. I stayed there for ten days, handcuffed, waiting. Then I was bought to the prosecutor. Looking at the file, the judge found no reason for my incarceration. “Sorry,” he admitted to me. “but the military authorities have given the order to keep you in prison. It’s not my fault.” And I was imprisoned again, for the next 11 years.

My story is just one. What happened to me and my fellow inmates, it is going at this very moment is many places. In Central America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East : within all these regions are multiple governments determined to systematically violate the spirit, bodies and inherent freedoms that are all people’s birthright. Their goal: to destroy people’s capacity to work in groups outside narrowly sanctioned channels. To breed suspicion and fear between ordinary people pursuing ordinary aspirations for security and freedom. To weaken and humiliate all by torturing and destroying some.

Torturers and the governments that sponsor or tolerate them are counting on you, just as they counted on my judge, to remain silent.

They depend upon democratic decent governments around the world to acquiesce and accept their rationalizations. To agree with their excuses. To justify documented torture and repression as ‘an internal affair’.

Don’t let this happen. Do not be silent. It is your affair. Speak up for those whose lives have been damaged or stolen. Do not allow your humanity to be diluted by you or your government’ silence.

2,044 thoughts on “
What I Witnessed in Diyarbakir Prison

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