April 6, 2000

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Shimkus). Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Pallone) is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. PALLONE. Mr. Speaker, I rise to join my esteemed colleague in introducing a resolution calling for democratic, linguistic and cultural rights for all Kurds living in Turkey today. The lands of Kurdistan are considered by many to be the birthplace of the history of human culture. Some of the earliest settlements as well as the earliest indications of the Neolithic Revolution have been found among the hills and valleys of this beautiful landscape. Yet even as one ponders the cultural advancements made on Kurdish soil thousands of years ago, one cannot help but wonder what lies in store for the Kurds’ future.

For Kurds living in the Middle East, recent history has brought far less reason to celebrate. Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey have been persecuted by the regimes in power, with the most brutal assault being the poison gas attacks made by Saddam Hussein in 1988 which decimated an entire section of a city and its 5,000 inhabitants.

Although Saddam Hussein’s heinous attacks caused unimaginable death and biological destruction, his regime, ironically, has not launched an all-scale offensive on the culture of the Kurds. It is unfortunate that the most comprehensive assault on the Kurdish language and culture has stemmed from our own ally and fellow-NATO member, Turkey.

Mr. Speaker, in 1997 I addressed this body on the cultural oppression of Kurds by the Turkish government and on the existence of democratically-elected Kurdish Parliamentarians unjustly jailed in Turkey. It is with a heavy heart that I stand before you today and recall recent events and happenings in Turkey, all of which suggest that nothing has changed. The Kurdish language and culture is still on Turkey’s most wanted list and Kurdish Parliamentarians elected to give voice of their constituents, are still being silenced.

When I addressed this body three years ago, Turkish Kurdistan was under a declared State of Emergency, patrolled by the Gendarmerie. Torture and abuse of the Kurds, the searching of Kurdish homes without a warrant, and the persecution of assemblies and demonstrations were the norm. This situation, in flagrant breech of democracy, continues today. The 1999 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report for Turkey states that members of the Gendarmerie continue to commit serious human rights abuses including the torture of Kurds, well-aware that the likelihood of their personal conviction is extremely slim.

Such lax prosecution is not the case, however, for Kurds. Six years ago four former members of Parliament, stripped of their official duties, were imprisoned for the crime of representing the will of Kurdish citizens. As I stand here today, Mrs. Leyla Zana, Mr. Hatip Dicle, Mr. Orhan Dogan, and Mr. Selim Sadak are still in jail. Labeled “Prisoners of Conscience” by Amnesty International, these four are guilty only of attempting to invigorate a true spirit of democracy in Turkey.

Three years ago 153 Members of Congress expressed their disapproval of the anti-democratic treatment of elected Kurdish representatives in the Turkish Parliament. I humbly stand before you to question whether it was enough. Today these four individuals are still in jail. Even more disturbing, the harassment of democratically-elected officials seems to be expanding from the national level to encompass local levels as well.

In February of this year, in a move that shocked many of us in this room, the Turkish Gendarmerie arrested three Kurdish mayors from cities in Turkish Kurdistan. One, the mayor of Diyarbakir, had just met with the Swedish Foreign Minister the day before his arrest in order to discuss hopes for a lasting and solid peace between Turks and Kurds. Although the mayors have since been released, their trials are pending, and if convicted, they too will face prison sentences. The arrests raise questions, not only about the legitimacy of Turkish democracy, but about the sincerity of Turkey’s commitment to forging peace.

When I addressed the body three years ago, the Kurdish language could not be broadcasted or taught, even as a foreign language, in schools. I am saddened to say that this negation of a people’s language continues today. But, here I must add that the criminalization of speech and expression is not necessarily limited to Kurdish citizens communicating in their native tongue. High numbers of journalists, human rights workers, doctors, and lawyers who expose injustices committed by the military, police, or state are also subject to prison sentences and illegal torture making the anti-sedition legislation perhaps the most “equal opportunity” of all laws in Turkey.

Mr. Speaker, the Kurdish Question, touches upon the very nature of democracy in Turkey and carries serious implications for the whole of Turkish society. Illustrations of how excessive laws mitigating Kurdish culture can spill into the mainstream, ultimately curtailing the freedoms of all citizens, are easy to find. Just last week authorities in Istanbul detained nearly 200 Kurds for illegally celebrating the Kurdish New Year, Newroz. Following their detention, authorities launched investigations of 6 Turkish newspapers that had reported on Newroz activities, for their crimes of spelling the holiday with a Kurdish “w” rather than the “v” found in the Turkish appellation. (the v is not the only letter charged with criminality–p and k have been banned from text books)

This persecution of a language and a culture, committed with such diligence that even individual letters come under fire, would be lamentable in any region of the world. But, that it occurs in the very Cradle of Civilization which bore witness to the first creative sparks of human culture and innovation instills the situation with a sense of tragedy so compelling that I believe it presents a direct challenge to those of us assembled here today.

Mr. Speaker, this resolution, supported by my esteemed colleagues Bob Filner, John E. Porter, Frank Wolf, and Anna Eshoo, was written with the hope that the future of the Kurds need not be wrought with even greater persecution and suffering. It was written with the knowledge that democracy, rather than being a simple destination, needs to continually be nurtured. And it was written with the promise that peace and justice may be cultivated. I ask my friends and esteemed colleagues to join in support of this resolution so that language, culture and democracy will be permitted to flourish on the very ground that holds our common humanity’s cultural roots.

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