Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

Ann Clwyd becomes first British MP to meet Leyla Zana

Report on a meeting held in Committee Room 6, House of Commons, Monday 30th April 2001 by Peace in Kurdistan campaign, chaired by Estella Schmid.

A birthday card written in Welsh was presented to Leyla Zana in prison by Labour MP for Cynon Valley Ann Clwyd when she met the Kurdish politician in prison recently. The card – which was X-rayed before being handed over – was to emphasis the point that it was perfectly possible for people to live peacefully together despite their differences in background and despite language differences, Ms Clwyd told a meeting in the House of Commons on 30th April.

Estella Schmid, in the chair, paid tribute first of all to Ann Clwyd, for her tenacity in succeeding to gain permission to visit Leyal Zana. She said the visit was important since Leyla had come to symbolise the struggle of the Kurdish people and Kurdish women in particular. It was especially necessary to raise the issue now in the context of the present deep crisis in Turkey and the current hunger strike which was claiming many lives. She was hopeful that with determined friends like Ann Clwyd the Kurds would succeed in campaigns like that against the Ilisu dam. Estella also welcomed the many women from Iraqi Kurdistan who were present at the meeting.

Ann Clwyd said that her meeting with Leyla Zana, which lasted for two-and-a-half hours, was arranged after lengthy negotiations and the intervention of British embassy officials and the Foreign Office. Originally human rights defender Bianca Jaggar was to have accompanied the MP, but this was not permitted by the Turkish authorities who have strict regulations on who can gain access to their countryís most well-known woman prisoner. Visitors must have “particular or family reasons” to see Leyla Zana, said Ann Clwyd, who eventually persuaded the Turkish ambassador that she had a valid reason as chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee and the only British member of the IPU, a body which oversees the welfare of politicians.

Despite the fact that the meeting had been carefully arranged well in advance, the MP still faced delays and prevarications from the prison authorities on her arrival. She was eventually only granted access after the prison governor telephoned a minister to confirm official permission. Ms Clwyd was informed by the governor that Turkey was awaiting an imminent ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on the case of the DEP MPs, that included Leyla Zana, after which there would either be a retrial or she would be released. The substantive point of the case concerned the fact that the accused had all been tried under a military court.

The discussion was conducted in a prison cell closely supervised by Turkish security personnel placing inevitable constraint on the subjects available for discussion, more or less ruling out any overtly political issue and completely preventing reference to all matters Kurdish. Due to the restrictions a letter from the Peace in Kurdistan campaign expressing solidarity was deemed too highly charged to be presented to her, but was read out at the conclusion of the parliamentary meeting. According to Ms Clwyd, Leyla Zana was receiving the letters that were being sent to her from people like Lord Hylton. She welcomed such correspondence and conveyed her thanks to all those who remained sensitive to her situation, including Danielle Mitterrand, Lord Avebury, Estella Schmid and Catherine Porter.

Ms Zana was able to say that she had received no visits from her husband for many years and when her son last came in the early 1990s he was detained. Her daughter was presently allowed to visit. Leyal Zana spent her time reading book and newspapers. She was allowed three newspapers a day, but Ms Clwyd did not say what the titles were. She informed the MP that she had expected a decision from the European Court as long ago as last December, a point which prompted Ms Clwyd to say that she would raise this in a parliamentary question. The fact that the case had been sent to the ECHR six years ago meant that a ruling was long overdue despite a massive backlog.

The meeting had occurred at what was a very sensitive time for Turkey with mass demonstrations against the economic crisis. Ms Clwyd had herself witnessed some of these protests. She acknowledged that it was difficult to discuss these issues with Leyla Zana, but emphasised that she was able to express her hope that “the various Turkish communities” were growing to understand each other better over recent years. She drew an analogy with the dialogue between the UK and Ireland and thought such a path could be emulated by Turkey, Ms Clwyd said.

Leyla Zana also expressed concern about the effects of the new Terrorism Act and the banning orders in Britain. She spoke of the tragedy of the Turkish hunger strikers and indicated that the authorities should negotiate. She felt that women had a special role to play in fostering dialogue. Ms Clwyd stated her intention to see the Turkish ambassador in London on the plight of the hunger strikers and would question the Foreign Office as well. At the time of the visit 17 had died, while at the time of the meeting the death toll had risen to 20.

What most impressed Ann Clwyd was the strong convictions, determination and sincerity of Leyla Zana. She said that she was honoured to have been able to meet someone who had spent seven years in prison for her beliefs and described her as a truly remarkable person. However, she expressed dismay that the Foreign Office had so far shown a reluctance to issue a public statement on her continued incarceration.

The MP was followed by Sally Eberhard from the Kurdish Human Rights Project who gave details of the numerous cases the group had taken before the ECHR. She confirmed that the DEP MP case, as it was known, had been brought in August 1994, but was declared admissible only last year. Ms Eberhard expected a judgment within six months. She stressed that there were great problems of intimidation and harassment facing all lawyers in Turkey.

Nufiler Koc, from the Womenís Peace Bureau in Germany, spoke about the issues facing Kurdish women in the democratic struggle of the Kurdish people. She remarked on the changes that had occurred over the years contrasting the present time with the past days of guerrilla campaigns when it had been less easy to raise specifically womenís concerns. She was hopeful because the Kurdish womenís movement crossed all borders and paid tribute to the work of her sisters in south Kurdistan. Ms Koc also paid tribute to Leyla Zana who was a symbol of the strength of Kurdish women to preserve their identity and dignity.

She further stated that Kurdish women wanted to learn from the historic movements of the past and the experience of women in other struggles, such as the Palestinian intifada. She said that Kurdish women had set up their own political organisation to defend the freedoms they had gained and to prevent any reversal, as had happened to women elsewhere when in peacetime women who had been politicised were then sent back to domesticity. Kurdish women were also making connections with Turkish women because they were facing similar social problems.

Like the other speakers, she criticised the new Terrorism Act and felt that the ban on the PKK had a seriously negative effect on the peace work. It was especially badly timed because now the Kurds were campaigning for peace and the PKK had ended its guerrilla activities for more than two years. She was also surprised that this policy change from Britain should come while Turkey was negotiating with the European Union on the conditions for its admission.

Lord Rea, Sarah Ludford MEP and John Austin all spoke out against the proscriptions on political groups under the Terrorism Act. Baroness Ludford read out government spokeman Lord Bassamís letter justifying the bans and said the description of the PKK was very weak and inaccurate. She was concerned about this policyís effects on debate and political dialogue, drawing a parallel with the example of how the British government had conducted talks with the IRA even before they had renounced violence. She challenged the government to declare the present meeting in breach of the Terrorism Act because there might now be members of illegal groups in asttendance.

John Austin was also concerned that the government in Britain was failing to encourage peaceful dialogue in Turkey and said that the Foreign Office had even refused to meet representatives of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) saying that it was merely a “front” for the PKK.

Report: David Morgan, 3rd May 2001.

For more information contact Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

020 7586 5892 or 020 7250 1315.