Local Kurds take their protest against the Turkish Government to Sheridan Circle

By Marcos da Rocha Carvalho

Washington City Paper

Vol.21, NO. 35 August 31 — September 6, 2001

The prison cell in Turkey in which Kurdish political dissident Leyla Zana resides is thousands of miles from Washington, DC.

Local Kurds protesting her imprisonment, however, concocted a way to bring the fact of her incarceration home to Americans and the Turkish diplomatic corps stationed here: They erected a replica of Zana’s cell in Sheridan Circle, directly across from the residence of the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Baki Ilkin, on the seventh anniversary of Zana’s arrest.

The six-by-eight foot structure (dubbed “The Cell of Atonement”) is an almost exact rendering of a Turkish prison cell, lacking only a toilet. It has one painted window through which light enters, but through which the protestors who occupy the cell in shifts cannot see to the outside.

The cell is occupied day and night as a vigil for Zana and her three colleagues–Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak–who are serving 15-year sentences in Turkey. Zana was the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish Parliament, in which she served for three years. She was arrested, tried, and imprisoned in 1994 for making what Turkish authorities dubbed as “separatist speeches,” and for her strident efforts to secure language and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey. All four have been given “prisoner of conscience” status by Amnesty International.

Maurine Greenwood, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for Europe argues that Zana’s case is an important test of Turkey’s commitment to human rights. “This Kurdish parliamentarian was dealing with issues faced by Kurdish members of Turkish society in a peaceful and constructive way,” says Greenwood, who also observes that the difficulties that Turkey has had in joining the European Union are tied, in part to such responses to its Kurdish minority.

Though it was not intended as a piece of political art, the cell echoes works like Brazilian artist Hélio Oticica’s 1968 installation piece, Favela, in which the artist recreated a typical Rio de Janeiro hillside slum house as a slap in the face of the gallery-going elite of that city.

The replica cell has become a rallying point for local Kurds–including refugees and asylum seekers passing through the District. But it has also become a thorn in the side of the Turkish Embassy and the Kalorama neighborhood in which it is located.

The Kurds manning the vigil say that they receive a range of responses from threats and curses to more innocuous curiosity of drunk P Street club goers. They pass the time speaking in Kurdish with compatriots. Because the cell has become a magnet for Kurdish musicians, there is often a soundtrack of traditional Kurdish folk songs.

“Kurdish people are very musical people,” observes Kani Xulam, a District resident who created the cell and logs the most time in it. “The lyrics of our folk music often speak of our people’s concerns and our situation.” Occasionally, the car horns of drivers flashing victory signs and honking in support of the protest can be heard as well.

The Turkish embassy’s response to the vigil is to link the protestors with the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which it labels as a terrorist organization.

“We’re of course not happy with this eyesore in the middle of town,” says Namik Tan, first counselor at the Turkish Embassy, says. “It is a blatant harassment of the ambassador and the embassy. Their claims are unsubstantiated and the connection [to the PKK] makes it more unacceptable.” Tan adds that “the four prisoners were tried through due process of law in a democratic country which enjoys an independent judiciary.”

Zana’s imprisonment has received attention from the U.S. Congress, and the District’s congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was among 152 signatories of a congressional letter sent to President Bill Clinton to take immediate action in Zana’s behalf.

The cell has also received attention of another sort from neighborhood residents who aren’t fond of the structure. The leadership of the Kalorama Residents Association is on record as wanting to see the cell banished from Sheridan Circle, and Sheridan-Kalorama Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1D Chair Lance Salonia expressed his outrage over the cell in a letter to the American Kurdish Information Network–which has sponsored the protest.

Salonia wrote that the cell and its proponents “are no longer welcome in our home, having desecrated our peaceful neighborhood’s hallmark Sheridan Circle Park.”(Salonia did not return City Paper call for comment.)

Xulam notes that other reactions to the cell have included shouted obscenities, ethnic epithets and appeals for Muslim unity. For local Kurds, however, the cell has become a home away from home of sorts.

Alan Sevinc, another local Kurd who helps keep the vigil, says that the cell provides time for him to reflect on not only Zana’s plight, but his own, as well.

“I am away from work where I have to speak English, here I can focus and reflect in my own language,” says Sevinc. “I think of my village and my times there, and I wonder why isn’t it possible for me to do this [protest] in my own country. why do I have to be so far away, in another country, to say these things that are so important.”