“Her pulse is between 55-60, while her blood pressure is about 5-7. She can’t receive liquids any longer, including water. She lost about 15 kilos and she can barely walk or talk. There is an ambulance waiting in front of the prison gate. The doctor asked for a signature in case of an emergency so that she could be treated, but Leyla Güven stated that she will not accept the treatment, if possible”
The above message was shared recently by Kurdish activists in front of the European Council in Strasbourg, who started an indefinite hunger strike demanding an end to the total isolation of Kurdish political leader and thinker Abdullah Öcalan on December 17, 2018.
The person referred to in the message is 55-year-old Leyla Güven, who has today reached the 65th day of her indefinite hunger strike in prison and whose life is at severe risk. Güven is a legally elected Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, member of the Peoples‘ Democratic Party (HDP), former mayor, and co-president of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), the largest civil society body in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
She was imprisoned in January 2018 upon voicing criticism over the Turkish state’s illegal invasion and occupation of the majority Kurdish region of Afrin in Rojava/northern Syria. During this military operation severe war crimes were committed and civilians were systematically targeted by Turkish-backed Syrian militias who raped, looted, kidnapped and killed with impunity.
Due to the state of emergency regulations imposed on the country after the attempted coup in 2016, Leyla Güven is the first case in Turkish history of a representative who was not released from jail upon being elected.
During her last court hearing in November she declared:
“Today, the policy of isolation against Mr Öcalan is imposed not only on him, but — in his personage — on society as a whole. Isolation is a crime against humanity. I am starting an indefinite hunger strike to protest against Mr Öcalan’s isolation. I won’t be defending myself in court from now on. I will continue to protest until the judiciary has ended its illegal decisions and until this isolationist policy has ended. If necessary, I will lead this protest to the death.”
Since 2011, Öcalan has been systematically denied access to his lawyers. Since 2012, a permanent vigil tent in front of the European Council has been demanding his freedom. The last sign of life received from Öcalan was during a family visit in 2016, following immense public pressure due to the suspicion that he might have been harmed in the aftermath of the coup attempt that summer.
Öcalan is overwhelmingly recognized as the chief negotiator and representative of the Kurdish people in the peace talks with the Turkish state. He is the initiator of several ceasefires and initiatives to work towards an end to the conflict. By isolating him, Turkey is actively sabotaging any chance of returning to the negotiating table and to bring an end to the violence. In a signature campaign between 2005 and 2006, more than 3.5 million Kurds defied the danger of facing imprisonment and violence, when declaring that they view Öcalan as their representative. The international signature campaign for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan, concluded in 2015, managed to gather an astonishing 10.3 million signatories.
Apart from his role as a political leader and negotiator, who has drawn up a roadmap for peace ten years ago, Öcalan is the architect of Democratic Confederalism, a political and social proposal for a life in peoples’ solidarity, radical democracy, women’s liberation and ecology. The Kurdish women’s movement, which is a militant and popular mass movement and one of the most organized voices in the struggle against patriarchy, is indebted to his perspectives on the importance of destroying male domination in the creation of a free life.
Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of his kidnapping in Nairobi, which the Kurdish community refers to as an “international conspiracy”, due to the fact that the coordination between several intelligence services, including the CIA, Mossad, and the Turkish MIT constituted a NATO-led mission.
The so-called Mandela Rules are a set of principles adopted by the UN in 2015, including rules against forms of solitary confinement that prevent a person from having 22 hours or more a day without human contact for a period that exceeds 15 consecutive days. In this sense, combined with the violation of his rights to receive his lawyers and family members, as well as the systematic obstruction of communication with the outside world, the isolation imposed on him has torturous dimensions. Legal experts have argued that the Imrali Prison where Öcalan is kept is a place where law and justice are systematically suspended.
In the past weeks, multiple solidarity actions have taken place, both organized at the grassroots as well as within more institutionalized political circles. Close to two hundred people are currently on hunger strike in Turkish prisons. In Europe, 15 Kurdish activists and political figures, including former MP Dilek Öcalan, have begun an indefinite hunger strike in Strasbourg to pressure the European Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to fulfil its duties and address their single and basic demand to the institution: to pay a visit to check on the situation of Abdullah Öcalan.
Young Kurdish activist Imam Sis has entered the 26th day of his hunger strike in Wales, while Nasir Yagiz in Hewlêr/Erbil, Southern Kurdistan (Iraq) reached day 52. Other hunger strikes are being led in the autonomous Kurdish refugee camp Makhmour, as well as in different places in majority Kurdish areas of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Armenia. On top of that, there are many more people on rotating, temporary hunger strikes both in the Kurdish regions and abroad.
An international call has been issued to demand an immediate end to the solitary confinement of Öcalan and other political prisoners in Turkey. Among the first signatories are well-known personalities like Immanuel Wallerstein and David Graeber, as well as activists, thinkers, trade unionists, feminist writers, MPs, MEPs, senators, researchers, journalists, historians, and artists from around the world.
South African lawyers and political figures, including spokespersons for the National Assembly, who have actively participated in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela, have drawn parallels between Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle and imprisonment, and the role played by Öcalan for peace in the Middle East.
The Kurdish freedom movement has a decades-old history of hunger strikes and death fasts that goes back to the early days of the PKK’s uprising starting in the late 1970s when many thousands of Kurdish activists were jailed in Turkish prisons. Hunger strikes are taken up as a last resort, a way in which people take direct action to pressure the state by showing their seriousness and determination about their demands. The systematic refusal of the state to give in to this radical form of protest has often led to the death of prisoners, such as during the prison resistance in the 1980s. But at other times, hunger strikes have brought about historic victories.
In 2007, after weeks of refusing to acknowledge the hunger strike led by Kurdish activists, the CPT agreed to visit Imrali Prison to undertake a physical examination of Öcalan’s condition after serious concerns were raised about the state’s gradual poisoning of the leader. In 2012, after a hunger strike that laster for 52 days in Strasbourg and 68 days in Turkish prisons, the Turkish state was pressured to accept Öcalan’s proposal to end the war and begin a peace process. In 2014, hunger strikes led by activists around the world during the siege of Kobane, alongside thousands of mass protests and direct actions, led to the international media’s reporting of the historic resistance and eventual victory against ISIS.
In the apolitical passive mindset promoted by individualism and consumerism under late capitalism, hunger strikes may be seen as absurd, and in fact be pathologized as irrational self-destructive and ultimately pointless behavior. Why not, one might ask, resort to democratic, legal, and civil means to raise demands?
As the systematic murder, imprisonment, torture, and forced displacement of thousands of Kurdish civilians by NATO member and EU candidate Turkey in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the last years has shown, the Kurdish people have been systematically deprived of any form of international support or institutional mechanisms that could secure their existence. EU institutions concerned with basic human rights stubbornly refuse to fulfill their most minimal duties in the case of Öcalan, due to their close relations with Turkey.
Meanwhile, European governments, especially Germany, invent new authoritarian methods and measures to criminalize even the most peaceful and civic forms in which Kurds in Europe assert their right to organize democratically. They crack down on Kurdish student organizations and raid publishing houses.
There was no outcry from such governments, when Kurds were being burned alive in the basements of Cizre or older women were shot down by snipers in the streets of Silopi. Likewise, international efforts to resolve the Syrian war have systematically excluded the Kurdish people, due to the interests of the Turkish state. In this environment, apart from resorting to direct action to defend their existence, what more dignified action could there be than the one chosen by Leyla Güven?
With their action, the hunger strikers make it clear that their understanding of life is not one of bare living and physical survival. An honorable and self-determined life is only possible with autonomy and freedom. A life under occupation, denial and oppression is not livable. In the words of Turkish revolutionary Kemal Pir, one of the co-founders of the PKK, who died during the prison resistance in Diyarbakir on the 55th day of his death fast in 1982, this means “Loving life so much to be willing to die for it”.
In the knowledge that their protest may have fatal consequences, the hundreds of people, who are currently resisting with the only means left to them — their bodies — are weaponizing their health to expose the cruelty and merciless face of a state that prefers war-mongering over returning to peace negotiations.
Those who believe in a peaceful resolution to this decades-old conflict must raise their voices to stand in solidarity with the hunger strikers and support their demand: end the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan!