She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “We refuse to be silent! To speak out freely is a decisive step on the way to freedom.”
At her oath of allegiance to become Turkey’s first ever Kurdish woman in Parliament she 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.”
And at her trial in which she was sentenced to 14 years in prison, she 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.”
Leyla Zana – Turkey / Kurdish part
Since 1980, Leyla Zana has been active in gaining recognition of the social, political, and cultural rights of Kurdish populations and for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict. She was a Representative of the Democratic Party in the Turkish Parliament (1991–1994), a political prisoner (1994–2004), and since 2004 a co-initiator of DTH, a new movement for democratic society. She has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights, democracy, and peace. Her courage has sensitized European public opinion about the problems of the Kurds and inspired numerous women to become active.Leyla Zana, called the “Kurdish Pasionaria” (in the spirit of the Spanish oppositional politician Dolores Ibarruri) is a symbol of the fight for freedom, democracy, and equality as well as for the rights of the Kurdish people. She was freed unexpectedly on 9 June 2004 after ten long years of captivity. On 14 July, the highest appeals court in Ankara reversed the second verdict that had upheld the 15-year prison sentences of four Kurdish ex-parliamentarians, including Leyla Zana. Both these decisions are connected with Turkey’s desire to join the European Union, but they are also linked to the continuous pressure of an international solidarity movement.
Leyla Zana was born in 1961 in the village of Bahceköyü near Diyarbakir, the clandestine capital of Kurdistan. In her own words, she was “an absolutely normal young woman from the country” whose world “was limited to wishing for a bit of domestic happiness.” She was illiterate and was married at the age of 14 to a cousin twenty years older than she. At 15, she had her first child, Ronay.
After the military putsch in 1980, Leyla’s husband Mehdi Zana, mayor of Diyarbakir, was arrested for “criminal opinions,” and then severely tortured in the prison “Hell No. 5” – he would spend a total of 15 years behind bars. With her two children, Leyla Zana followed him from prison to prison, learned to read and write Turkish, completed her schooling, and was the first woman from Diyarbakir to earn university qualification – after studying on her own.
She became the spokeswoman for the families of prisoners. She was persecuted and twice barely escaped assassination. Her photograph served as a target for military shooting practice. In the summer of 1988, she was harshly abused for weeks on end, beaten, and thrown into a cell that was a meter high and 30 centimeters wide. Since then, she has suffered from circulatory problems and a serious blood disease.
Leyla took the first steps to establish a women’s association, was actively involved in the pro-Kurdish – later banned – Democratic Party DEP, spoke up for the rights of Kurds to a cultural identity, for a peaceful solution to the Kurdistan conflict, and for women’s equality. Her frightful experience turned her into a “political activist with an iron will.”
In 1991 she was elected by an overwhelming majority to the Turkish Parliament, as the first Kurdish woman and one of eight women among 450 members. About her time as parliamentarian she writes: “I was the only Kurdish woman in Parliament. I refused to be satisfied being a decoration there and decided to speak openly in Parliament about the problems and suffering of the population and about taboo subjects such as the destruction of the Kurdish homeland by the army, the forced re-settlement of the population, and the assassination of members of the Democratic Party by death squads. The generals decided to punish me with the usual order: ‘Keep quiet, woman!’”
Leyla Zana did not keep quiet. Three years after her election to Parliament, she was arrested as Traitor Number 1. The charge was separatism: On the occasion of her swearing-in in Parliament – wearing a red, yellow, and green headband to emphasize her Kurdish identity – she called for cooperation between Turks and Kurds – in Kurdish, a language that had been banned. Before her trial, she turned to the world in an open letter: “I am 33 years old. For 14 years I have lived with being pursued. Friends of mine were tortured or killed, solely because they wanted to live in peace and democratically with the Turks – based on their Kurdish culture and identity being respected. I love life. But my longing for justice for my people who are suffering in our struggle for dignity and freedom is stronger. I will not bow to the Turkish opposition.”
On 8 December 1994, after her parliamentary immunity was lifted and after international pressure was able to prevent the death penalty, Leyla Zana was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Leyla Zana declared in court: “We worked in Parliament for brotherhood, democracy, and freedom. If this is a crime, then I have committed it and will continue to commit it.”
The scandalous moral judgment as well as the courage of the politician shook and touched many people throughout the world. The International Democratic Women’s Federation in Paris started a campaign for freeing the Kurdish parliamentarian. Seven women flew from Germany to Ankara to demonstrate in front of the prison and to deliver the signatures of women from a number of continents to the Turkish human rights organization.
In 1996, to remind countries that gave Turkey economic assistance and arms of their responsibility and to work toward freeing the Kurdish parliamentarian, approximately 5000 women declared they were prepared to spend one day in prison for Leyla Zana. Among these women were survivors from Auschwitz; Angela Davis, the civil rights activist in the United States; the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva; Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who was later to win the Nobel Peace Prize; and Danielle Mitterrand, who in 1995 initiated a committee to free Leyla Zana. In Washington in 1997, members of the US Congress and well-known public figures undertook a hunger strike to free Leyla Zana and for freedom in Kurdistan.
Leyla Zana received a number of prizes, among them the Aachen Peace Prize (1995), the Norwegian Thoral Rafto Prize, the Norwegian Thoral Rafto Prize, and in 1995, the Sacharow Prize of the European Parliament for intellectual freedom and human rights. In 1997, Amnesty International declared her a political prisoner. At that time, worldwide protests, hunger strikes, demonstrations, and appeals were not strong enough to move the Turkish Government to give in. In September 1999, Leyla Zana was sentenced to a further two years for racial hatred.
The courageous politician was offered release – on the condition that she not speak out politically – as a special case for reasons of health, but she refused. She called for basic democratization and an unconditional general amnesty for all political prisoners.
From prison she wrote moving letters. In one, for example, she says: “The jailer can lock up my body, but my thoughts know no bars, no bans, no limits.” She also wrote statements of solidarity. In a message to the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the political prisoner declared: “To be a woman is, in many countries, not easy, but in a country like Turkey, to be a woman, a Kurd, and a Muslim at the same time makes for a life of true suffering.” Leyla Zana’s daughter Rüken brought a message from prison to the Women’s Conference of the European Social Forum in 1993 in which the Kurdish woman denounced the 20th century as a time of war, racism, and violence and at the same time praised it as the century of women. The women’s movement has become the cornerstone of the struggle for peace and democracy: “I continue to be convinced that the battle for peace, freedom, brotherhood, and friendship remains the noblest in the service of humankind.”
Leyla Zana was free at last. Yet there were new charges and accusations: In Kurdish, she publicly called for the recognition of the rights of the Kurds, a truce, and peace. For the third time the court case was re-opened in Ankara. This time, however, the human rights activist has remained free. Ten years ago, she had already been arrested before the trial began, after two failed attempted assassinations.
After her release in summer 2004, Leyla Zana announced that she and the other ex-parliamentarians had established a new party, the Movement for a Democratic Society, in order to support the process of Turkey’s accession to the European Union and to achieve a peaceful and democratic solution for the Kurdish question. Fifty percent of the leadership of the party should be in women’s hands.
In October 2004, ten years after her arrest, she met her son and her husband in Brussels again and was able to personally receive the Sacharow Peace Prize for Human Rights. In December she received the City of Paris’s Grande Médaille de Vermeil, an acknowledgement of her commitment. A street in Bobigny near Paris is to be named for her. In January 2005, Turkey amicably settled its lawsuit with Leyla Zana – already in 2001, the European Court of Human Rights had criticized the court case against Leyla Zana as “unfair.” (Read this on this page of 1000peacewomen).
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. (Read all this on this page of Democracy now!).
See here Democracy Now! interview with Leyla Zana’s husband Mehdi Zana.
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