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Kurdish Political Prisoner Leyla Zana Released After a Decade in Jail

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Kurdish leader Leyla Zana was released yesterday after spending 10 years in a Turkish jail for daring to speak Kurdish and wear the Kurdish colors in the ribbons in her headband in Parliament. We play the historic addresses of Leyla Zana speaking in parliament and defending herself at her trial and go to Turkey for a report from activists on the ground. [Includes transcript]

Kurdish leader Leya Zana was released from prison yesterday after spending 10 years in a Turkish jail. A Turkish court ordered the release of Zana, along with three other Kurdish legislators after a state prosecutor called for their sentences to be quashed. Their trials have been widely condemned by human rights groups. While Zana was released her sentence has only been appealed, not dropped. On July 8 her appeal begins and she could face more prison time.

Zana’s release comes amid repeated warnings from European institutions that the continued imprisonment of the four legislators would affect Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. After their release, Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said, “This is the last bargaining chip in the hands of those who were seeking excuses in Turkey’s EU bid.”

Leyla Zana rose to prominence in 1991, when became the first ever Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish parliament. In Turkey, the Kurdish language was banned, publications were proscribed and broadcasters prosecuted.

After being elected in 1991, Leyla Zana dared to speak Kurdish in the Turkish Parliament and wear the Kurdish colors in the ribbons in her headband. The move caused an uproar throughout the country. She was later sentenced to 14 years in jail.

At her oath of allegiance to become Turkey’s first ever Kurdish woman in Parliament Leyla Zana said:

“I swear by my honor and my dignity before the great Turkish people to protect the integrity and independence of the State, the indivisible unity of people and homeland, and the unquestionable and unconditional sovereignty of the people. I swear loyalty to the Constitution. I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.”

The commotion in Parliament and uproar throughout the country was caused by the last sentence of her oath, which she said in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.”

At her trial in which she was sentenced to 14 years in prison, Leyla Zana said, “This is a conspiracy. What I am defending is perfectly clear. I don’t accept any of these accusations. And, if they were true I’d assume responsibility for them, even if it cost me my life. I have defended democracy, human rights, and brotherhood between peoples. And I’ll keep doing so for as long as I live.”

We play the historic addresses of Leyla Zana speaking in parliament and at her trial and go to Turkey for a report from the ground.

  • Sanar Yurdatapan, a Turkish human rights activist and musician. He is leader of the “Freedom of Thought Campaign” in Turkey. He has been arrested and jailed several times by the Turkish government on charges of supporting Kurds.
  • Jonathan Sugden, the Human Rights Watch representative in Turkey.

See Democracy Now! interview__ with Leyla Zana’s husband Mehdi Zana.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Turkey, to Jonathan Sugden of human rights watch, who was with Leyla Zana and the three other Kurdish prisoners when they were released last night. We welcome you to DemocracyNow!.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the scene last night?

JONATHAN SUGDEN: Yes. In fact, I was in meetings with the government, and I was in a meeting together with some other human rights organizations and local and international human rights organizations in the meeting of the part of the foreign that deals with the relations to the European Union. After the meeting, somebody got a message on their phone that Leyla Zana and the others had been released, which was very exciting, because I have worked on this case for ten years, and I knew — I have had close contact with all of these M.P.'s in the years before they became M.P.'s, when they were still working for human rights organizations. After they were elected, it was the end of a long, long story. A very thrilling end, really. They were released at half past five last night. I went to see them at a restaurant in the Ankara where they were receiving good wishes of some friends and contacts. It was all very surprising. We watched the emergence from prison on television. I had expected that the police would completely evacuate the area and try to get the M.P.’s away in a sort of secretive way, but in fact, there was a huge crowd, thousands of people outside the gates of the prison in Ankara, and it was definitely a Nelson Mandela moment, which is something that has been long needed in Turkey, sort of really — a cathartic moment, and I think that was it last night.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We are also joined by telephone from Turkey by Sanar Yurdatapan, a Turkish human rights leader and musician. He has been arrested and jailed several times by the Turkish government on charges of supporting Kurds. Welcome to Democracy Now!.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us your reaction and that of the human rights movement to last night’s release, and also a little bit — how is the Turkish press covering this whole issue?

JUAN GONZALEZ: First for us it was a very happy moment. A bit unexpected, but not so soon and also private happiness for me, too, because in 1997 when I was first taken into custody and arrested, I stayed in the same prison with them, and a few times I was allowed to meet them so, this was a sort of friendship comes up. And the press coverage is too, too big, of course. All of the first pages in the newspapers today have it, and that was the number one news on television. In Egypt and each and every channel, and reactions are mostly positive. Even the negative ones, they say it’s a political decision to send a message to European Union who are — of course, it is. Because this case itself is not a case, it is a political case. It’s good that the case will be reopened so that this time I believe people of Turkey will also have the chance to learn the truth behind that. It is really a complex case, created by one of the former prosecutors of state security court.

AMY GOODMAN: The upcoming NATO summit, people are being arrested in turkey?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Today we also protested together with many human rights organizations and in the presence of Turkish P.A.N., Publishers Union, et cetera, that lots of people are being arrested. Many, many really democratic organizations and some political magazines offices and even press agencies, digital press agencies, we were there today. Two days ago they were — the police was there, and they took many documents away. I think it has two purposes — one to make the organizations restless, and they don’t want to make the demonstrations. In Turkey, usually in the Cold War times, the people who are known as leftists should usually be picked up by the police on 28 or 29th of April, and released on the 2nd of may so that there would be no demonstrations on the 1st of May. The same habit is going on, I’m afraid, now, and from time to time they need to — they like to make oppression, and there this time, they should — because the Kurdish transmission was very limited, but it was the first time in Turkish state radio television transmitted them, and this may be a sort of message to conservative people and organizations saying that, don’t worry it’s just a show-off, but we will not let them work freely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring in Jonathan Sugden again and ask him with Turkey poised to enter the European Union, we have 30 seconds left, if you can tell us what you think the impact will be on the issue of Kurdish rights within Turkey, if it does enter the European Union?

JONATHAN SUGDEN: Well, yesterday as a whole was a very significant day, because in the morning we saw the first broadcasts on the state television in Kurdish, and it was a very small start, a 15 minute program that’s going to be once a week, and it was almost comic, but on the other hand, we know this is the beginning of an expansion. There will be more on television. We know there will be private stations. We know that’s going to happen in the future. The release of the parliamentarians who were also — their arrests started with work in Kurdish. This does seem like a significant turning point on that subject.

AMY GOODMAN: Leyla Zana’s words when she came out of prison?

JONATHAN SUGDEN: I spoke to her later in the evening and she said that she was still completely committed to the same goals that she was when she went into prison and she expected to call upon civil society in giving her the liberty to pursue those goals. The speech she made immediately after she was released I missed that.

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