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“We Ask For Democracy And Human Rights Without Oppression And Without Killing” – Kurdish Independence Leader Mehdi Zana Joins Us in Our Studio

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Former Kurdish political prisoner Mehdi Zana joins us in our studio to talk about the plight of the Kurds in Turkey, his wife’s ongoing imprisonment, the threat of Turkey invading northern Iraq and more. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Turkey is warning it will preemptively attack Northern Iraq unless the U.S. removes Kurdish rebel groups from the mountains in the region. Turkey’s Foreign Minister told the Los Angeles Times, “Turkey has the right to take preemptive action to defend its own security interests, just as Israel and the United States do. The U.S. government must take this issue seriously.”

Kurdish rebels in Turkey have been fighting for an autonomous homeland for well over a decade. Turkey has long been a key military and political ally of the United States. The linchpin of this partnership has long been the powerful Turkish military, which has been sharply criticized for repression. Indeed, the bloody military campaign against the Kurdish independence movement in the southeastern part of Turkey has sparked worldwide condemnation.

Hundreds of Kurdish villages have been destroyed and tens of thousands killed by the Turkish government in its efforts to crush an armed resistance movement and Kurdish calls for self-determination.

Today we are joined in our firehouse studios by renowned Kurdish independence leader Mehdi Zana. Despite having almost no formal education, Mehdi Zana was elected mayor in 1977 of Diyarbekir, the cultural capitol of Turkish Kurdistan. Following a military coup in 1980, he was jailed for 11 years where he endured severe beatings and torture. Since his release in 1991, he has published five books, been jailed two more times and barred from political activity. He currently lives in Sweden.

His wife, Leyla Zana was the first Kurdish woman ever to be elected to the Turkish parliament where she dared to speak Kurdish and wear the Kurdish colors in the ribbons in her headband. She was later sentenced to 14 years in prison where she still remains.

  • “Back of the World” excerpt of a documentary produced by Javier Corcuera showing Medi Zana’s wife, Leyla Zana, speaking in parliament in Turkey.
  • Michael O’Reilly , national casework director at Amnesty International.
  • Mehdi Zana, Kurdish independence leader.


AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest situation that we’re seeing right now with Turkey threatening to invade Iraq if Kurdish rebels, I think, it is as they say, are not dealt with, the rebel groups in the mountains.

MICHAEL O’REILLY: Amnesty International has long documented a range of human rights violations perpetrated within Turkey. Those have been perpetrated on a whole swath of Turkish society, but as you noted, they have been particularly vehement upon the Kurdish population. There’s this long enmity toward anyone expressing any kind of a Kurdish identity. As you know, it is only recently that the Turkish government has even accepted the notion that there is a Kurdish identity that they’re willing to accept the fact that there are Kurds, and they’re acknowledging that there are Kurds in the country.’ For many years they simply referred to them as mountain Turks. Speaking Kurdish, wearing so-called Kurdish colors, identifying oneself in any way as a Kurd can lead to jail, torture or even death. So, the government, as you also noted, has — had been engaged in an arms struggle with an armed opposition group, the Kurdistan worker’s party, the P.K.K., Amnesty International documented serious human rights violations by both sides in that conflict. But what is most disturbing is that the government has shown little regard for — little distinction between armed combatants and civilian population. Simply being a Kurd, identifying oneself as a Kurd was grounds enough for jailing someone for torturing someone, perhaps to the point of death.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue now with turkey saying they will attack Iraq?

MICHAEL O’REILLY: Well, obviously, it’s very troubling. It’s very troubling. The whole notion of Turkey entering into Iraq, whether it is attacking or whether it is serving as a peacekeeping force is troubling in looking at the history between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurds. Amnesty International has called for any troops that are sent into Iraq, if Turkey is sending troops into Iraq in its peacekeeping capacity that those troops be screened to weed out human rights violators in the past.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What’s been the relationship between the pro autonomy or independence groups, the Kurdish groups within turkey, vis-à-vis the Kurdish groups within Iraq? Obviously Turkey feels there’s got to be some — they believe that there are — there has to be some staging of attacks or some participation on the Iraqi side. Has Amnesty International found anything about that?

MICHAEL O’REILLY: Well, there are — there are some indications that there may be P.K.K. — former P.K.K. insurgents across the border in Iraq, but as you know, the outright hostilities, major hostilities between the P.K.K. and Turkish government pretty much ceased with the arrest of Ochalam.

AMY GOODMAN: And what this means the Kurds inside Iraq who were so enraged when the idea of the Turkish troops that would come in to join the United States in the occupation.

MICHAEL O’REILLY: Well, you can imagine. I think that Mehdi Zana can speak to this more forcefully, but there is no love lost between the Kurdish people and the Turkish armed forces. Given the history of the wiping out of villages, Kurdish villages, the attacks upon Kurdish villagers, the jailing of people, the atrocities perpetrated upon them. Kurds are very leery at the idea of Turkish troops coming in.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael O’Reilly, I want to thank you for being with us. When we come back from our break we’ll be joined by Mehdi Zana. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Joined in the studio now with Mehdi Zana spent 16 years in jail in Turkey as an a Kurdish independence leader. His wife, Leyla Zana remains in prison, sentenced for daring to speak Kurdish and wear the Kurdish colors in the Turkish parliament where she was the first woman ever elected, the first Kurdish woman ever elected to the Turkish parliament. Mehdi Zana, welcome to Democracy Now!.

MEDHI ZANA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us.

MEDHI ZANA: Same, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us your story, and through it, the story of the Kurds of Turkey?

MEDHI ZANA: I am a Kurdish man. It came to my attention the suffering and the pain the Kurdish people went through when I was a little boy, so I decided to pay attention to that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do?

MEDHI ZANA: When I was a child, under our house there was a precinct of police. I was hearing screams of people out of there. It sounded of doors, and I was asking my parent what was going on there.

They were torturing people in there, so in order to suppress their screams, they were trying to hit the doors so nobody would hear them.

Then I became — I started working with a tailor. When the client came in and they were talking about the Kurdish uprisings of old times. Burning of villages, killing of people. Of course, I was listening to those stories. It left a big impact on me, so I let — I started going into this direction. So, I asked myself, I started asking myself what I can do for my people. I started political activities first with a political party. It was the labor party.

I was in the central committee of that political party. In 1980, there was a military coup. In 1971 there was a military coup. We were imprisoned. I spent 38 months in prison, then was released. In 1977, I was elected mayor of Diarbuk. Then came the military coup in 1980, and I was imprisoned again.

During three-and-a-half years day and night I was tortured. We were tortured. Up until 1991, after that time, it turned into psychological torture, up until we were released in 1991. After I was released, there were elections three months after I was released from prison. People came and asked Leyla to run.

She accepted, and she was elected. Because of that, she has been in prison for the past nine-and-a-half years. This is our life. This is the story of democracy in turkey.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Kurdish — the Kurdish struggle for recognition for autonomy for independence has been used not only by the great powers, but also by the regional powers within the region, and could you talk a little bit about how others have used your struggle?

MEDHI ZANA: The countries that have divided Kurdistan do not recognize the Kurdish cause. they don’t have any respect for their own people. They don’t have democracy in their countries. Someone who doesn’t think that their people are worthy of democracy, of course, you wouldn’t expect them to recognize other people’s rights as well. So, we are facing a double trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: Your wife, Leyla Zana, imprisoned for almost a decade now, she was retried, is that right? What happened very recently?

MEDHI ZANA: It’s fake, that trial. they have made their decision. They are playing some games because of the pressure in the European union, the European parliament. They are fooling the world and us.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States is a close ally of Turkey. Has president Bush spoken up for Leyla Zana?

MEDHI ZANA: No, I haven’t heard. From time to time we have heard that there were talks within the government, but we haven’t heard anything in public.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between the Kurdish independence and autonomous forces in Turkey and those in Iraq. What kind of relationship exists how do you see the situation that’s going on now in Iraq with the Kurdish groups there?

MEDHI ZANA: Right now, we are enjoying good relations. The relations are good. There are no problems between them. Our people have turned to the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq. People are hopeful, and they are looking at these developments with hope.

AMY GOODMAN: What has the invasion of Iraq meant for Kurds within Turkey?

MEDHI ZANA: At least there will be no attacks on the Kurds from the neighboring countries. We are an independent people that have been divided into four. We don’t have any — any opportunity to accept relations with the outside world. Let me give you an example. Turkey, Syria, Iran, they don’t have good relations. They don’t like each other. They don’t like each other. But when it comes to the Kurdish issue, they unite. So, because the U.S. military came, the Kurdish people feel better. Because they are powerful, the Kurds hope that there will be no more attacks on them.

So, I spent three months there. Two-year-old boys were waving hands to the American soldiers. Whoever goes to that area will see it with their own eyes. We don’t have any rights, and people outside of our country do not know about this.

AMY GOODMAN: There will be a protest outside the Turkish consulate on Friday here in New York. you will be there, Mehdi Zana.


AMY GOODMAN: what are you calling for?

MEDHI ZANA: We are not against any people. We are not anybody’s enemies. We ask for democracy and human rights. Without oppression and without killing, let’s live together. Nobody is going to remain forever in this world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your reaction or impression when you hear that Turkey is threatening now to move into Iraq? Presumably into the Kurdish areas of Iraq, because those are the areas that border Turkey.

MEDHI ZANA: Turkey can go in whenever it wants, if it feels that it has the power. But without a signal from Europe or the U.S., it cannot go in. Because it doesn’t have that much power.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Mehdi Zana.

MEDHI ZANA: I thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

MEDHI ZANA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Mehdi Zana, himself imprisoned for more than a decade in Turkey. his wife, Leyla Zana, remains in prison for almost ten years. Sentenced to many more. You are listening to Democracy Now!.

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