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Exclusive: US Journalist Deported from Turkey After Reporting on Plight of Kurds

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Twenty-five-year-old American journalist Jake Hess was arrested in Turkey nearly two weeks ago and deported back to the United States over the weekend. Turkey accused him of allegedly having ties with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey and the United States classify as a terrorist organization. But Hess and his lawyer have maintained that Hess was targeted because of his writings. His recent articles for Inter Press Service have focused on Turkish soldiers deliberately starting forest fires, the depopulation of Kurdish villages, and Turkish-Iranian air strikes on Kurdish homes in northern Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with the American journalist Jake Hess, who was arrested in Turkey nearly two weeks ago and deported back to the United States over the weekend. Jake Hess is twenty-five years old. He’s a freelance journalist from New Hampshire who had been based in the predominantly Kurdish part of southeastern Turkey for nearly two years. He wrote for Inter Press Service.

On August 11th, he was arrested in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir and spent four days at the headquarters of the city’s anti-terrorist unit before being transferred to a pre-deportation unit. Turkey accused him of allegedly having ties with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey and the United States classify as a terrorist organization.

But Hess and his lawyer have maintained that Hess was targeted because of his writings. His recent articles for Inter Press Service have focused on Turkish soldiers deliberately starting forest fires, the depopulation of Kurdish villages, and Turkish-Iranian air strikes on Kurdish homes in northern Iraq. His arrest by the Turkish authorities was condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

American diplomats say Hess rejected their offer of assistance after he was taken into custody. He later told CNN it would be hypocritical of him to accept US help given US support for the “Turkish policy of criminalizing Kurdish activists,” he said.

Hess was arrested at a time of increased clashes between Turkey and the PKK, which cancelled a fourteen-month ceasifre in June. The twenty-six-year-old insurgency in southeastern Turkey has killed some 40,000 people.

Jake Hess joins us now from Boston for his first broadcast interview since being deported back to the United States.

Jake, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us about the day you were arrested. What happened?

JAKE HESS: Well, basically, I was in Diyarbakir, as you mentioned. I was translating for a German journalist named Benjamin Hiller. And at about 6:00 in the evening, the anti-terror police knocked on our door and presented me with a search warrant and an arrest warrant, saying that I had ties with the PKK, as you mentioned. And after that, I was taken to the police station, the anti-terror section of the Diyarbakir police station, and held for four days. And basically my interrogation focused on the articles I had written for IPS and my relationships with human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Association of Turkey and the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about where you were held.

JAKE HESS: It was basically a small prison-like cell with a bed, but no blanket or pillow, and with no opportunity to interact with other prisoners. But I don’t want to complain too much. It wasn’t abysmal, but it wasn’t luxurious, either.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the questions that you were asked. Who interrogated you?

JAKE HESS: Well, I was interrogated by maybe ten or fifteen civil police officers, and basically they asked me why I had written about things like torture or violence against Kurdish women or the Kurdish — excuse me, the Turkish army’s use of forest fires as a tool of counterinsurgency. They claimed that things I had written were inaccurate, and they accused me of waging a smear campaign against the Turkish Republic and also asserted that my writings had negatively impacted Turkey’s international image. And I had recently been to northern Iraq to interview the PKK as a journalist, but surprisingly, they did not ask me at all about that trip. And as I said, they asked me why I had relations with human rights groups both in Turkey and in London and why I had collected signatures to support the release of Mr. Muharrem Erbey, who is the chairman of the Diyarbakir office of the Turkish Human Rights Association, and other such things. Basically, I was asked only about my writings and about perfectly legal human rights organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the situation in Turkey and in Kurdistan and why you’ve become so interested in the plight of the Kurdish people?

JAKE HESS: Well, as you said in the introduction, now clashes are increasing between the Turkish government and the PKK. Certainly, conditions aren’t as bad as they were in the 1990s when the Turkish government destroyed about 3,500 Kurdish villages, leading to the displacement of between two and three million Kurdish people, and, in addition to that, carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings of Kurdish political activists and human rights defenders. But, certainly, human rights abuses are continuing at a very disturbing level. And recently the PKK has declared a ceasefire and offered proposals for making a political process happen. But unfortunately, the Turkish government has not recognized their ceasefire or any of their previous ceasefires, and military operations are continuing, and news of death is still coming every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Jake Hess, about why you refused US consular help?

JAKE HESS: Well, I think, as you said, it would be hypocritical for the United States to send me support while at the same time encouraging Turkey to use military means to solve this issue and also supporting Turkey’s policy of annihilating Kurdish political activists through mass arrests and criminalization. And similarly, it would probably be hypocritical of me to accept their help after spending so much time denouncing their policies in Turkey and elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about, in particular, the two people that the Turkish authorities who were interrogating you were interested in? Who are they, and what do they do?

JAKE HESS: One of them was Mr. Muharrem Erbey, who is a prominent human rights lawyer in Turkey and the chairperson of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association of Turkey. Most of his work in recent years has focused on getting to the bottom of unresolved cases of extrajudicial killings and in forced disappearances, and his efforts have led to the discovery of several mass graves filled with victims of human rights abuses. And he has played a major role in keeping this issue on the public agenda. He was arrested on 24th April — excuse me, 24th December, 2009, and he’s been held in custody since then.

The indictment against him has just been produced. It numbers about 100 pages. And to support the allegation that he is a member of a terrorist organization and a foreign affairs officer for a terrorist organization, namely the PKK, as the Turkish government says, they discussed his various activities, including his writing of human rights reports, his participation in press statements, his entry of political lawsuits on behalf of victims of human rights abuses. And even the work that we did together to raise international awareness of the human right situation in southeastern Turkey is presented as evidence. And the police asked me extensively about my relationship with Muharrem, and they even asked me if he was giving me orders as a PKK commander.

And the other person they asked me about was actually a British citizen named Estella Schmid, who has been campaigning for Kurdish human rights for a very long time in London with the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign. Recently she collected signatures for the release of Muharrem and has also organized activities in the British Parliament concerning human rights abuses in southeastern Turkey. And in addition to the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and the Human Rights Association of Turkey, I was asked extensively about the Kurdish Human Rights Project, which is a pioneering human rights organization, also based in London, that continuously reports on human rights violations in all parts of Kurdistan and also brings cases before international human rights mechanisms, such as the European Court of Human Rights, in order to win justice for victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Jake, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Jake Hess is an independent journalist. He’s just been deported from Turkey. He was held for two weeks, a freelance correspondent with Inter Press Service. He was arrested for covering the predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey. This is Democracy Now! After that, we’ll be going to the Gulf to talk about how polluted is the Gulf of Mexico with BP oil. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Jake Hess. This is a global broadcast exclusive. Jake has just been deported from Turkey, independent journalist, works for Inter Press Service, was covering Kurds in Turkey and was arrested for doing that.

You’ve also written about a young Kurdish journalist who was imprisoned for her coverage. Talk about who she is, Jake.

JAKE HESS: Her name is Hamdiye Çiftçi. She’s twenty-four years old. She lives in the province of Hakkari, which is in far southeastern Turkey close to the borders with Iran and Iraq. And she first made her mark as a journalist by documenting police brutality against young demonstrators. And on several occasions she took live video footage of police severely beating children at demonstrations and subsequently broadcasted them around the world, leading to public relations disasters for the Turkish government. And on one occasion, she was held in prison for three months before being released without facing charges. And she was also constantly subjected to death threats and other forms of intimidation by state actors. And she was most recently arrested in June again, just a few weeks after she documented police using disproportionate force against demonstrators. And now she’s still in prison awaiting trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the forest fires, the depopulation of Kurdish villages, and the bombing of Kurdish areas of northern Turkey, Jake?

JAKE HESS: Sure. Well, as I mentioned before, in the 1990s the Turkish government destroyed about 3,500 Kurdish villages, leading to the displacement of two or three million Kurdish people. And since that first wave of deportation took place, the Turkish government has periodically set fire to forested areas and gardens and crops and farms in those depopulated villages so as to prevent people from returning and reestablishing a normal life in the rural area. And in recent weeks, as clashes between the PKK and the army have escalated, the government has been using this policy even more, and officially the army claims that these forest fires are the unfortunate byproduct of clashes. But actually, there’s a pattern established in many parts of the southeast where fires are starting as a result of soldiers indiscriminately firing on forested areas, even though there aren’t any clashes taking place, and doing nothing subsequently to suppress the fires.

For example, in this — near the town of Sirnak in southeastern Turkey, there are two villages called Ikizce and Toptepe, and the Turkish army started a fire there by opening fire on forested areas indiscriminately. Subsequently, they took no efforts to suppress the fire, although the local villagers’ grazing land and crops were all being devastated. And actually when Sirnak municipalities sent a team to suppress the fire, the Turkish army opened fire on them, or opened fire in their vicinity, and subsequently caused the fire to spread to other areas. And similar things have been witnessed in cities like Batman, which is also in southeastern Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting —-

JAKE HESS: So this has a political purpose, again -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Jake.

JAKE HESS: Yeah, go ahead. So, I mean, as I said, it has a political purpose of obstructing the returns of Kurdish people, but this is also the sort of arbitrary vandalism and cruelty typical of occupying armies.

AMY GOODMAN: Jake Hess, this has also been happening as the Turkish government has taken a strong stand on the Occupied Territories, on Gaza and the West Bank, of course, the Gaza aid flotilla that last went to Gaza — attempted to — that was attacked by the Israeli commandos, and they killed eight Turks and one American onboard the Mavi Marmara, came from Turkey. Can you talk about that, Turkey’s stance on Israel-Palestine, and its stance on the Kurds?

JAKE HESS: Well, as you know, Amy, the Turkish government has taken a very visible stance in support of the Palestinians in recent years, especially since the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009. But, I mean, Kurdish people are a little bit surprised by this because while Prime Minister Erdo?an defends the Palestinians, he’s committing very serious human rights abuses in southeastern Turkey and denying the Kurds the same rights that he calls on Israel to extend to the Palestinians. So, they raise — in the eyes of Kurds, there are certain questions about Mr. Erdo?an’s sincerity.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jake, the treatment of Kurdish women?

JAKE HESS: Well, in southeastern Turkey, there is a very dynamic and broad movement for women’s rights. The main political formation that’s leading this movement is called the Democratic Free Women’s Movement, and unfortunately, their members are constantly subjected to very severe violence and intimidation, and also lawsuits are constantly being opened against them in order to deter them from their work. So, for example, my friend Azize Yagiz is a very prominent women’s rights activist. She’s twenty-three years old, but she has about twenty lawsuits against her because of her work. And in addition to that, she’s been to prison three times and detained five times in her short period of time.

According to UN statistics, about 42 percent of women in Turkey face violence from their spouses. And Kurdish women, on top of this general issue experienced by all women in Turkey, are also subjected to severe violence by security forces. In a study published in 2000, it was reported that two percent of all women in southeastern Turkey had been subjected to violence by security forces, but given the cultural taboos in the region, this is probably a conservative estimate.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you plan to return to Turkey, Jake Hess?

JAKE HESS: Not for the time being. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea from the standpoint of the security of my friends.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JAKE HESS: Well, I mean, I don’t think I told you, but when I was detained, actually, five of my friends were also detained along with me. And I think what the Turkish state is trying to do is intimidate local Kurds away from sharing their experiences with internationals so international public opinion is not aware of what’s going on here. And I’m just concerned that if I go there and try to continue my work, then the Turkish state will do bad things to the people I interact with.

AMY GOODMAN: Jake Hess, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist deported from Turkey. He was held there for two weeks, was living there for two years and covering events in Turkey, and particularly the situation in Kurdistan, for Inter Press Service.

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