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Middle East Monica Dispatch

Leyla Zana's Case: Seeking Justice in an Unjust Situation
March 18, 2000

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Leyla Zana in prison

Jasmine and I walk into Mr. Yusuf Alatas's office, in Çankaya, Ankara, just as he finishes typing a press report. "What day is it today?" he asks us, as he puts the finishing touches on the report. "It's Thursday, March 2nd," Jasmine says. Mr Alatas pauses, and types in the date. Then, in English, Mr. Alatas explains slowly and clearly, "It is the anniversary of her arrest. It was six years ago on this day."

Six years ago. How old are you right now? Think for a moment: six years ago, what were your beliefs and actions? How did you get to where you are today? Now, think about today. What do you believe right now? How does that influence your actions? Where will that take you, six years from now, in the year 2006?


Six years ago, could Leyla Zana imagine her detention in the Ankara Closed Prison? Could she imagine that her actions would be treasonable, and that they would carry the death penalty? Could she imagine that people around the world would be inspired by her unwavering commitment to her cause?

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Monica interviewing Leyla Zana's lawyer.

Leyla Zana is a Kurd living in Turkey. She is the first Kurdish woman elected to Parliament, representing the Democratic Party with 84% of the 1991 vote from Diyarbakir. Arrested six years ago, along with seven other members of Parliament, she was imprisoned on December 8, 1994 with a 15-year sentence. She is currently in isolation. She must cook for herself. She cannot speak with other prisoners, except during weekly visiting hours. Her family may visit only once in a while--she last saw her son two years ago--and it is extremely difficult for foreign visitors like the trekkers to see her.

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Translator Mutlu Civiroglu, Lawyer Yusuf Alatas, Monica

Leyla Zana's actions of wearing Kurdish colors of yellow, green, and red and promoting Kurdish culture, language and identity are considered dangerous to the unity of the Turkish Republic. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all citizens have rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a right to take part in government. However, starting from Ataturk's time and the building of the nation, Kurds have been oppressed. In Zana's case, Kurds do not seem to have those freedoms.
Why is Leyla Zana in prison?

Leyla Zana and the seven other deputies were working towards Kurdish rights in a political method, rather than using violent acts like the PKK. They were arrested on charges of treason because:

1) When Zana took the oath of office to represent Diyarbakir, she allegedly displayed a headband and handkerchief with the Kurdish colors "yellow, green, and red." Following the oath-taking, Leyla Zana allegedly said in Turkish: "I am a Kurd. I will remain a Kurd forever. I am taking this oath compulsorily and under pressure. But I am still a Kurd, and I will remain a Kurd."

2) After the oath-taking ceremony, the deputies wrote answers to biographical questions. In the question asking "the foreign languages which they are able to speak," Leyla Zana and other deputies allegedly wrote "Turkish". (Zana spoke Kurdish at home; she learned Turkish at 15.)

3) Leyla Zana addressed an election meeting of the Social Democratic Party (SHP) wearing "yellow, green and red" and saying "Hello Kurdish martyrs, hello . . . Clap for our homeland not for me."

4) When answering a reporter, Leyla Zana explained that the colors "red, yellow, and green" are symbols accepted by the Kurdish people, not the symbol of the PKK. She allegedly continued, "the PKK is trying to make Kurdish reality accepted . . . I show respect to people who struggle for me."

According to her accusers, Leyla Zana's actions violate Article 14 of the Turkish Constitution:

"None of the rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution shall be exercised with the aim of violating the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation, of endangering the existence of the Turkish State and Republic . . ."

Government policy minimizes the importance of Kurdish identity. For example, the Kurdish language is illegal in schools. ("Sipash" means "thank you," but a teacher couldn't even say that in class.) Also, Kurdish place names have been changed on maps to be Turkish names: that's one way to ignore their Kurdish character. Our translator for the interview with Mr. Alatas, 23-year-old Mutlu Civiroglu (with a cedilla under the C and a line over the g: pronounced "Chivir") says, "My name is not a Kurdish name, it is Turkish, so I like to change it with a Kurdish name instead." Many Kurds like Mutlu have to change their names to fit in. He is proud of his heritage but some Kurdish people have to change their names to Turkish names because of racism and being marginalized. Zana's pro-Kurdish standpoint, according to her accusers, is an act treason against the government.

What does Leyla Zana want? I ask Mr. Alatas to clarify her position as a separatist, and he makes clear that Leyla Zana does not advocate a separate state. What she DOES want is recognition for the basic rights of Kurds living and working in Turkey. She wants Kurds to be able to preserve their language: to read, write, and be educated in Kurdish. She wants Kurds to maintain their distinct cultural identity as Kurds. She wants the world to realize that Kurds are not Turks; they are not "Mountain Turks," as they've been called. Kurds are a separate people with an ancient history and a separate culture (they were here before the Mongol invasions from whom the Ottomans and modern-day Turks come from).

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Mr. Alatas and Monica agree - violence is not a solution

Does Leyla Zana's imprisonment seem just or unjust to you? Isn't Turkey a democracy that recognizes the rights of minorities like the Kurds? Read Jasmine's dispatch on our visit to HADEP, which works, under extreme negative pressure, towards true democracy in Turkey. Also, read Kavitha's dispatch comparing political prisoners here and prisoners in the United States.


marginalized - not accepted by the majority
allegedly - declared to be as described; doubltful
separatist - a supporter of separation (i.e. from an established church or political group)

Is the method Zana chooses to use, political involvement, more effective than violent means? Mr. Alatas speaks to us about this: "In every country in the world there is murder, killing and violence. In your country [the United States,] people were arrested and imprisoned for civil rights...There isn't tolerance..." Leyla Zana works to represent her people, but she is punished for her efforts. Her situation is awakening people all over the world to Turkey's unjust handling of democracy.

Related links

American Kurdish Information Network
Amnesty International

Mr. Alatas continues with some advice regarding how to get involved and how to seek justice in unjust situations. "It's very important to get common sense in order to solve all the problems, all around the world." What steps are YOU taking to get common sense? What injustices do you face? What can you do to change them?

Video footage of the interview with Leyla Zana's lawyer, Mr. Yusuf Alatas may be found in the Multimedia and Special Guests section soon. Click here for a congressional letter to President Clinton concerning her situation. Also, he encourages you to write Leyla Zana in prison:

Leyla Zana
Ulucanlar Cezaevi

- Monica

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - The PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and the "Kurdish Problem" in Turkey: Breaking Violence Apart, Replacing it with Love
Abeja - Is This What They Mean by "the Rock of Ages"?
Abeja - What's for dinner?
Kavitha - Rags & Riches
Team - A Time to Acknowledge, A Time to Forgive
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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