Questions no one dares to ask

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

In today’s edition of the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, Turkish newspaper columnist, lawyer, and human rights defender, Orhan Kemal Cengiz asks an important, powerful question. In his editorial piece The ICC and crimes against humanity in Turkey, he asks: While Serbs continue to deliver Serbian butchers to The Hague, who will try Turkish butchers who committed crimes against humanity in the ’90s against Kurds in Turkey?

It is a timely question. A significant question. A question that begs an audience. It might be, for many, an extraordinarily shocking question. And, unfortunately, it is not a question that enough people are asking. Why aren’t more people asking about crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Kurds?

There are also many questions that people never ask. They go unasked for fear of asking. Unasked for fear of knowing the answers. Unasked out of ignorance. Unasked, nonetheless. Many questions that, perhaps, we don’t know how to ask. Or to whom to direct them.

Cengiz writes in his column about the International Criminal Court (ICC) that ‘[d]uring the ’90s more than 3,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed and tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings were committed.’ Another question then might be, Why did this happen? As Cengiz points out, these crimes are a perfect fit for the definition of ‘crimes against humanity.’ Who committed these heinous ‘crimes against humanity’ against the Kurds? Ah, another question. No one is asking that one either.

The ICC in the Hague

According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute a ‘crime against humanity’ is an act committed as ‘part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.’ The ‘act’, to name a few, may be ‘murder’, ‘forcible transfer of population’, ‘torture’, ‘rape’, or ‘other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.’ All of these ‘acts’ have been directed against the Kurds for decades. Who is asking why?

The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Turkey is not a party to the treaty, which went into force on 01 July 2002. The court was ‘established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.’ There are now 139 signatories and 115 member nations. Joining Turkey in the group of non-member countries are Somalia, China, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and some others. Asking why these particular countries will not become party to such a treaty is one question that may not be necessary.

As the ICC cannot try the ‘Turkish butchers’ who perpetrated tens of thousands of Kurdish murders, we are back to Cengiz’s original question of ‘Who will?’ Certainly not the Turkish judiciary. Cengiz writes that only 20 of these murders are now being addressed in a trial in Turkey. Only 20. Only 20 of tens of thousands. And, he adds, that not a single person is ‘being put on trial because of their role in the destruction of villages in southeastern Turkey.’ What is preventing justice here? Where is the international outcry?

A few years ago in one of his columns (Bloody Turk! 18 Sept 2009), Cengiz said of himself : ‘I am not a religious person. I am not Kurdish. I am not gay. I am not Christian. I am not Armenian. I am not Roma. But I have spent all my life defending these people’s rights.’

Indeed, Mr Cengiz is an experienced lawyer and defender of human rights. He is president and founding member of the Human Rights Agenda Association, with more than ten years of experience working in human rights organisations, including a stint with the Kurdish Human Rights Project in London. At times Mr Cengiz has even had to seek protection because of the work he does. It takes courage to stand up for dignity and human rights.

But it doesn’t take decades of experience to ask questions. It does take courage to ask the right questions. It takes courage to want to know the true answers.

In this time of revolutionary change, the world is applauding people’s courage to stand up to the brutality of the region’s repressive regimes. They have the courage to face tanks and bullets, to demand reform and to question the legitimacy of the regime. The fear is gone and they want an end to oppression.

In Turkey too courage is building and the Kurds want an end to Ankara’s oppression. It’s time to start questioning Turkey’s repressive policies towards the Kurds. It’s time to start asking the questions that, until now, no one has dared to ask.

#TwitterKurds takes the civil disobedience campaign online

A campaign on Twitter is underway to raise awareness of the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and to bring the situation to the attention of the international media.

The campaign, dubbed #TwitterKurds, has been organised by UK-based blogger and human-rights activist, Hevallo, who says that journalists in the UK tend to shy away from reporting on the Kurds saying ‘there is no real link to the UK and there are other conflicts that are more newsworthy.’

While other conflicts across the globe capture the world’s attention, the Kurds’ struggle for ethnic and linguistic equality in Turkey goes largely unnoticed in the mainstream press. Hevallo says that one of the main issues hindering the ability of global media to report on this particular conflict fairly and accurately is that ‘Turkish propaganda and psychological misinformation cloud the issue and many people still regard the Kurds’ legitimate struggle for basic rights in Turkey as “terrorism.”’

The Kurd as ‘terrorist’ is an all too common theme in the Turkish press and often in European press as well. Little effort is made to reach beyond the Turkish propaganda machine and clichés to reveal the truth.

The #TwitterKurds campaign will attempt to do just that by reaching out to journalists, politicians, bloggers and social media activists, policymakers, news agencies and human rights organisations with the message: ‘Speak Out About the Repression of the Kurds in Turkey’ and to give the Kurdish people a voice as they struggle daily on the streets of Turkey against a repressive regime.

Kurdish politician and leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, said acts of civil disobedience planned by the BDP and the DTK (Democratic Society Congress) will be democratic and peaceful. ‘Don’t send the security forces against us; if you are going to send someone, send government representatives, send the interior minister. Security forces aren’t our counterpart to talk to; our counterparts are the politicians,’ he said.

However, security forces have been sent against them. The civil disobedience campaign has been met with batons, tear gas and high-pressure water cannons. In fact, just since the beginning of this year Turkish police have already used up their entire annual stock of tear gas in repressing demonstrations. In the same amount of time thousands of Kurdish protesters have been arrested.

Given the difficulties of getting this information to the attention of the global press, #TwitterKurds plans three days of mass Tweeting to get the message out. Turkey’s general election is slated for 12 June, just three weeks away. Over the next three Fridays (27 May, 03 and 10 June) in the run up to the elections, while Kurds are boycotting the official Turkish Imams and praying outside of the mosques instead, Kurds and friends of Kurds will be Tweeting en masse to speak out with one voice against the suppression of the Kurds in Turkey.

This collective suppression of the Kurdish population is due, in part, to ‘the silence in the international community,’ says Hevallo. By Tweeting, he says, ‘we are able to reach a wider audience than say, Facebook. If we are disciplined and smart about this, a well-constructed Tweet with a link to a well-written article, photograph or video can convey our message and give the Kurdish side’s point of view. Our Tweets will expose the truth about the Kurdish question in Turkey.’

Politicians are making the rounds in Kurdish areas of SE Turkey trying to garner votes. Yesterday Turkish PM Erdoğan was on the campaign trail in the city of Şirnex (Şırnak in Turkish). Surrounded by rooftop snipers and army helicopters he announced to the crowd of Kurds: ‘My brothers, we will build new hospitals, airports, schools and health clinics. For us [the party in power], there is no separation between a Turk and a Kurd. Let us serve you.’

Kurds have four demands and hospitals, airports, schools and health clinics are not among them, though this is a step up from the washing machines and dishwashers offered in the 2009 election.

Kurds are engaging in a massive campaign of civil disobedience for the right to education in Kurdish, the immediate release of imprisoned Kurdish politicians, an end to Turkey’s military operations against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the abolishment of Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold law for parliamentary representation.

‘Until our demands are heard by the government and until concrete steps are taken, we will remain on the fields and on the squares,’ said Demirtaş.

#TwitterKurds says that until Kurdish voices are heard by the international media and until people start paying attention, the campaign will remain on the Twitter timelines.

Join the campaign at #TwitterKurds!

Kurdish Genocide Conference

Conference organisers from the American Kurdish Council have announced that the Kurdish Genocide Conference will be broadcast live online from Tennessee State University in Nashville on Sunday afternoon, 22 May 2011.

The conference will focus on the different genocides perpetrated by the governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey against the Kurds. The conference will also feature a monodrama, Pakiza, performed by Kurdish actor Sarkawt Taro.


Tune in here to watch the conference. To find out what time Opening Remarks begin in your area, click here.


Conference Programme:

1.00-1.10pm Opening Remarks

American Kurdish Council

1.10-2.30pm Kurdish Genocide: Beyond the Borders

Speakers: Kirmanj Gundi, Kamal Artin, Kani Xulam and Sirwan Kajjo

2.30-3.00pm Anfal: The Exploitation of the Qur’an

Speaker: Dr. Zaid Brifkani

3.00-4.00pm lunch break

4.00-5.30pm Kurdish Genocide: Witnesses and Survivors

Speakers: Azad Hamad, Yonis Haji, Amina Mahmood Ali, Neaamat Torabian and Dilovan Parwar

5.30-6.00pm Pakiza – Monodrama

Performed by: Sarkawt Taro

Umur Hozatlı’s film about JİTEM, ‘Lost Freedom’

2011, 91 minutes in Turkish and Kurdish (click for larger image)

The film, ‘Lost Freedom’ (Kayıp Özgürlük in Turkish and Azadîya Wenda in Kurdish), by director Umur Hozatlı describes one of the most brutal organisations in the Turkey, JİTEM (Turkish: Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele), the über-clandestine Intelligence and Counterterrorism Police Force) which was formed by the Turkish government and is believed to be responsible for thousands of disappearances in the country’s Kurdish dominated regions in the ‘90s. Hozatlı describes his film as a ‘call to confrontation.’

‘Lost Freedom’ reveals the dark side of JİTEM to the rest of the Turkish community, which remains ignorant of its own history. This is the first film of its kind to hold JİTEM accountable and openly criticise the organisation.

Hozatlı discusses what inspired him to make his first full-length movie: ‘Kurds launched an organised fight after a long-period of slavery and captivity. Since then, Kurdish people have been living in a time of enormous tragedy. Ignoring this tragedy is a vital mistake. I cannot be one of those people who turn a blind eye to this problem.’

Hozatlı’s ‘Lost Freedom’ was previously shown at a number of festivals. It had its public release last week but was screened at only two movie theatres in Istanbul and in two theatres in the mainly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakır and Batman. The director has not commented on the reasons why so few movie theatres have been interested in the film, but the film is highly political and takes a daring look at the abyss of thousands of disappearances and unsolved murders in Turkey’s recent history. In an earlier interview with news site Bianet, Hozatlı said the film had limited funding and he took out personal loans to fund the project. The film was two years in the making.

The movie is set in Istanbul some time in the mid-90s. It starts with the abduction of a young man, Deniz Şahin, by a group of armed individuals not wearing gendarmerie uniforms although they later prove to be JİTEM officers. He is taken to the interrogation centre of a gendarmerie black ops unit, JİTEM. Their aim is to extract information from Deniz, whom they accuse of belonging to a terrorist organisation. The cast includes actors Serdar Kavak, Vedat Perçin, Musa Yıldırım and Öznur Kula.

Umur Hozatlı: 'In making this film, I wanted to translate for the world the trauma that Kurds face while keeping in mind that art, as well as people and states, can be fascist too.’

The existence of JİTEM was first reported by Ayşe Önal in 1994. Önal was introduced to JİTEM’s founder, Veli Küçük, by fellow journalist, Tuncay Güney. She wrote about what she learned at that meeting and was fired immediately thereafter (along with 19 of her co-workers) from her position at Ateş Magazine.

Rationale and speculation around JİTEM’s mission are varied. Some say it existed to foment infighting in the PKK and to raise stakes in the fight against PKK terror. The Turkish military needed the PKK (as the US military needs al-Qaeda) to keep it operational. JİTEM carried out assassinations and bombings that were blamed on the PKK and gave the military justification to continue its operations and presence in Kurdish areas. One well-known example is the 2005 bookstore bomb attack in Semdinli.

Abdulkadir Aygan, a former PKK member and later a JİTEM operative, claimed that JİTEM executed between 600 and 700 Kurds in the 1990s and that ‘JİTEM operations always ended in death…those who were reported to JİTEM as having any relationship with the PKK were executed.’ Aygan is now living in political exile in Sweden.

Tuncay Güney, a suspected former member of Ergenekon now living in Canada, said a large number of the Kurds executed by JİTEM in the 1990s were doused with acid and buried in wells located near facilities of the state-owned Turkish Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ) in Silopi.

Both Güney and Aygan have said that many Kurds were thrown into wells between Şırnak and Cizre. Aygan claims to have knowledge of 16 such wells. Güney also claimed that one of the torture centres of JİTEM was based in northern Iraq.

The Turksih Human Rights Association (IHD) estimates that between 1989 and 2008 JİTEM was involved in 5,000 unsolved killings of journalists, human rights defenders, intellectuals and political activists and was responsible for 1,500 cases of ‘disappearances.’ Former chair of Diyarbakır Bar Association Sezgin Tanrıkulu put the figures above 4,000, close to 5,000.

Director Umur Hozatlı was born in 1969 in Dersim (Tunceli). He began his career in journalism in 1992, working for Özgür Gündem, Özgür Ülke, Yeni Politika, Demokrasi, Özgür Bakış and Yeni Gündem as a reporter, editor and columnist. Because of an article he wrote in 1993 on the Kurdish issue he was sentenced to three years and 9 months in prison and fined 400 million Turkish Lira.

Watch trailer:


JİTEM movie has restricted screening in first week. Today’s Zaman, 27 April 2011.

JİTEM and the ‘deep state’. Kurdistan Commentary, 09 February 2009.

Kayıp Özgürlük. Politik Sinema.

Missing Freedom reveals horror of Jitem. Firat News Agency, 28 April 2011.

Kayıp Özgürlük, Bir Yüzleşme Çağrısıdır. bianet, 25 April 2011.

Iran’s hanging frenzy

Less than three weeks into 2011 and Iran has executed 47 prisoners. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) spokesperson, Aaron Rhodes, says ‘[t]he Iranian Judiciary is on an execution binge orchestrated by the intelligence and security agencies.’ At one execution every eight hours, it is a hanging frenzy. Iran executes more people per capita than any other country in the world.

While 47 is the number officially reported ICHRI reports that the number of executions in Iran is apparently much higher. Multiple and reliable reports indicate that secret, mass executions of more than a hundred have taken place in Mashad’s Vakilabad prison.

Most recently, Iran hanged Kurdish activist Hossein Khezri, who was put to death this past Saturday. Kurds are disproportionately targeted by the regime. ‘The execution of Kurdish activists, without fair trials and following torture,’ says Rhodes, ‘increasingly appears as a systematic, politically motivated process.’

Other Kurds on death row in Iran include: Zeinab Jalilian, Habibollah Latifi, Shirkoo Moarefi, Rostam Arkia, Mostafa Salimi, Anvar Rostami, Rashid Akhkandi, Mohammad Amin Aghooshi, Ahmad Pooladkhani, Seyed Sami Husseini, Seyed Jamal Mohammadi, Hasan Talei, Iraj Mohammadi, Mohammad Amin Abdollahi and Ghader Mohammadzadeh.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran called on the Iranian Parliament and the Judiciary to immediately institute a moratorium on executions and to move swiftly to abolish the death penalty, in the face of skyrocketing executions following unfair trials and opaque judicial proceedings.


Iran on “Execution Binge;” Immediate Moratorium Urged. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 16 January 2011.

Cartoon found at Nûkurd, Dewleta Îranê xwe bi çanda dardakirinê têr dike!