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March 15, 2000
I've read a lot about Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman elected to the parliament who is also still in prison for wearing Kurdish colors and speaking up about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I also just finished watching the movie Yol (The Road), a Kurdish film that won the best film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, but was banned here in Turkey until last year. Yol is a striking film about five Turkish prisoners who go home on leave. But the film isn't nearly as exciting as the story of how the film itself was made...it was actually written by a prisoner and smuggled out of the prison to be made into a movie! Yilmaz Guney, the writer and director, was a Kurdish actor and director who had been imprisoned many times for political reasons. In 1979 he smuggled the script of Yol out of prison, and in 1981 he himself escaped to Switzerland where he finished filming it.
All this information about Kurdish oppression and imprisonment is a little overwhelming and very sad. It is easy to read about Leyla Zana's case and think about Turkey's human rights abuses and lack of justice. It is easy to watch Yol and think about Turkey's harsh prison system and the discriminatory policies and racist police force that contribute to the incarceration of so many Kurds. It's easy to think about Yilmaz Guney's scripts and Layla Zana's books that are banned or censored by the government, and think about Turkey's suppression of freedom of speech. But the more I read, the more enraged and sad I become, I realize that I've felt these emotions before. Turkey is definitely not the only country on earth with such human rights abuses and such problems with political prisoners...Peru and South Africa come to mind.
It's always easy to come to a new place and point out its faults, but it's a much harder task to look in the mirror and realize your own faults. Did you know that like Turkey, the United States actually has a very controversial prison system fraught with racism, human rights abuses, and political prisoners? Let's learn a little about our own system while we learn about the Kurds...
What kinds of things create an environment where there will be a lot of crime? What could be behind such high rates of crime and imprisonment? How about unemployment, poverty, or not receiving an education?
Turkey has entered a period of acute economic crisis. There have been bank failures and bankruptcies, an inflation rate of approximately 125% annually, and unemployment has been estimated at more than 20%. The Kurdish towns are especially poor and neglected, without proper schools or roads. In some cases these towns are without basic electricity and water facilities. Public frustration has been compounded by casualties suffered in the Turkish army's battle against the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast.
In the United States, problems like homelessness, drug addiction, and unemployment also afflict the minority population disproportionately. Rather than putting more money into programs aimed at combating problems like these, governments are putting more money into jailing more people. Many states, like California, put more money into building more prisons than they put into higher education. Did you know that currently in the U.S. there are five times as many black men in prison as in four year colleges and universities?
What are the results of disproportionately imprisoning minorities like this? Well for one thing, it substantially decreases their representation during elections: they can't vote. For example, as Turkey attempts to become a Western power and a part of the European Community, its commitment to democracy is being closely watched. Since the military coup of 1980, a civilian government has been re-instated, but the military still holds a great deal of power. Preventing Kurdish citizens from voting through imprisonment, and imprisoning elected Kurdish officials themselves (like the seven Parliament members arrested with Leyla Zana), are ways the Turkish government has avoided addressing Kurdish concerns.
In the United States, 1.4 million black men, or 13% of African American men, have lost the right to vote because they have committed felonies.
In the movie Yol, prisoners are shown forced to spend numerous hours doing hard labor. This is based on Yilmaz Guney's first hand experience working year after year while imprisoned...from construction to textiles, the hours were long and the work was hard.
Check out our MAD dispatch on human rights abuses in the US and websites like Corporate Watch to stay informed about prisons in the United States and keep reading our website as we continue to learn more about how the Kurds and the Turks are working towards a peaceful coexistence...hopefully without the need for more imprisonment.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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