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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

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Different Places, Same Problems
March 15, 2000

I've spent my last few days here in Turkey learning a lot about the situation of the country's largest minority population: the Kurds. Representing approximately one-sixth of the entire population of the country, the Kurds are essential to any understanding of Turkey as a whole. Unfortunately most of what I have found has not been very pleasant. In addition to years and years of battle between security forces and terrorist groups, I have found that Turkey has a terrible record of human rights abuses when it comes to the Kurds and countless political prisoners.

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 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...


incarcerated - to be in prison
antagonism - actively expressed opposition or hostility
insurgency - a revolt of the government

The military coup in 1980 in Turkey increased the antagonism between the Kurdish people and the government, especially in the southeastern regions along the border, where the population is primarily Kurdish. Thousands of Kurds, especially young men, found themselves in prison. In the United States too, the number of people imprisoned has increased exponentially since 1980, and like in Turkey, the population of prisoners is made up mostly of the country's minority groups. Today, there are over 1.7 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than any other industrialized country. Most of them are African American and Latino (almost 70% of US prisoners are people of color) and two thirds are serving sentences for non-violent crimes. One in three African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 is either in jail, on probation or parole.

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?

For More Information:

General information about the Kurds

Details the brutality the Kurds have endured

Site for Kurdish culture

The Kurdish language was banned in Turkey for over 60 years, and still today it is illegal for teachers to use Kurdish in education. This makes education, especially higher education, out of reach for certain peoples. Similarly, recent laws passed in California have banned the use of second languages in schools and outlawed affirmative action laws intended to help disadvantaged people get into college, creating a similar environment of education geared towards the dominant cultural group.

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.

Your Turn!!!

The news in the United States
is all about how the economy
has never been better. Yet this
story points out a lot of things
that aren't so good. Do you think
the United States is doing well?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

Disproportionately imprisoning minorities also keeps the country from actually having to focus on the problems that create an atmosphere of inequality. By imprisoning so many black men, for example, the U.S. can make claims that unemployment is decreasing. If all the black men that are in prisons were included in unemployment statistics, the unemployment rate for black males would rise from 11% to 19%!

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.

The United States also uses prison labor, which has created a frightening relationship between the prison system and private businesses. Mumia Abu-Jamal, himself a black jounalist on death row, points out that, "Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits, prisons take one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave pen." In fact, slavery was the beginning of prison labor. After the civil war "convict leasing" was started by former Confederate Democrats, where former slaves who were convicted for petty theft were rented out to do everything from picking cotton to building railroads. Convict leasing may have been abolished, but today corporations merely come to the prisons. Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, Eddie Bauer, Lee Jeans, IBM and TWA are just some of the many companies that make use of prison labor because it saves them so much money over paying people fair wages to do the work. Companies can pay very little (only half of which goes to the prisoners themselves!) and get away without offering health benefits, unemployment insurance or worker's compensation. The companies also have the added security of getting away with any mistreatment of employees, since prisoners are not allowed to organize in unions for their rights.

All of this news about prisons can be quite surprising because governments do not make it easy for prisoners to express their views to the public. While Yilmay Guney was able to smuggle out his script for Yol and escape to produce it, other political prisoners in Turkey like Leyla Zana remain in prison with restrictive access to reporters and outside news. In his book Live from Death Row, Mumia Abu-Jamal explains that it's easier for prisoners in the United States to have access to a television set than a typewriter because governments see typewriters as a threatening tool of expression. Political prisoners like Mumia and Leonard Peltier have a hard time sharing their stories as do ordinary prisoners trying to voice complaints of unfair treatment in their prison or on the job.

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

Brian - If These Walls Could Speak
Jasmine - Monica and Jasmine Detained by "Police"
Abeja - Deal of the Centuries: Abeja Sells You a Hole in the Ground
Team - Speak Your Mindů..The Kurdish Conflict
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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