The imprisoned politician Sebahat Tuncel: “My life as a political hostage of Erdogan”

Under the title “My life as a political hostage of Erdoğan”, an interview with Sebahat Tuncel was published in the Italian newspaper La Stampa. The Kurdish politician is one of the pioneers of the women’s movement and a former co-chair and MP of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s parliament. She was arrested in 2016 and has been in Sincan prison ever since. Before her arrest, she was co-chair of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), a member party of the HDP.

The journalist Valentina Ruggiu conducted the written interview with Sebahat Tuncel who is imprisoned in Sincan Kadın Cezaevi of Ankara. La Stampa is one of the best known and most widely circulated daily newspapers in Italy. We publish excerpts of the interview conducted shortly before Erdoğan’s re-election in English translation, about her elections, Kobani Trial and the conditions in prison.

First of all, thank you for this opportunity. How are you doing? How are they treating you in prison?

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make our voices heard in public under these difficult conditions. I don’t know how to answer the question of how I am doing. I would say that I am in good health, but “good” in the broadest sense and considering the conditions in which we live. For this reason, I think it is more appropriate to write about some of the problems we face and leave it to you to judge how we are doing within this framework.

To understand the state of democracy in Turkey, just take a look. Thousands of Kurdish politicians, activists, journalists and women’s movement activists are unjustly held “hostage” in prisons. The smallest demand for rights is used as a reason for arrest and detention. Anti-Kurdish policies continue in prisons. According to the Turkish Law on Execution, the release of hundreds of Kurds is delayed even though the sentence has already been carried out. We are confronted with discriminatory practices. In prisons, for example, political prisoners have the right to a ten-minute phone call with relatives, while other prisoners are given a thirty-minute video phone right.

Tuncel while she was detained by Turkish police in 04/11/2016 in Diyarbakir while protesting the detention of 12 HDP MPs. (Reuters photo)

All prisons practice the isolation and segregation that began on Imrali Island. The right to ten hours of entertainment and sport each week is not fully implemented anywhere for political prisoners. While judicial prisoners were released during the pandemic, political prisoners were subjected to strict isolation and segregation. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the right to entertainment and sports is not implemented because of inadequate space and prisons are full beyond their capacity.

Detainees are handcuffed and kept in vans for hours on the way to and from hospitals. In some cases, treatment in handcuffs is ordered. The practice of double handcuffing, i.e. handcuffing prisoners together, such as in Amed (Diyarbakır) is torture. The need for infirmaries in the prisons is not met and there are not enough medical staff. Those who object to the prison administration’s practices risk disciplinary sanctions (banning visits, confinement in solitary confinement cells and the prohibition of certain activities) and judicial harassment. I was sentenced to one year and three months for protesting against injustice in prison. Sick prisoners are not released due to the political approach of the judiciary, and for this reason 75 people died in prison in 2022.

In short, daily life in Turkish prisons is a battle of wills. In the prison we are in, we have to cope with many problems: With weekly searches, 24-hour surveillance with cameras in the common rooms and ventilation so they can see the bathroom and toilet door, the problem of a healthy diet, and the need for cleaning and hygiene products, which are not provided sufficiently for women or not at all in some prisons. Two rules apply in Turkey’s prisons. First, the state is always right. Secondly, if the prisoners are in the right, the first point applies.

Do you have the opportunity to follow the election campaign? What do you think about what is going on?

Unfortunately, in prison it is not possible to follow the election process and political, social and economic developments. We can only follow the news through the television channels and the newspapers approved by the prison. Opposition media are not allowed in prison because they “threaten public security” or because they do not receive advertisements from the Press Association (which does not place advertisements for opposition newspapers). The only option is the pro-government media. You may have noticed that these media do not treat all political parties and candidates equally and that they do not broadcast the election advertisements of the HDP and the Green Left Party. The Green Left Party candidates were only given space in one or two programmes. On the other hand, pro-government newspapers, TV channels and radios broadcast anti- Kurdish programmes in which the Kurds are criminalised. We try to get the right information through our visits or weekly ten-minute phone calls.

How many years have you spent in prison so far? I have seen the government’s accusations against you increase almost every day.

This is my seventh year in prison and how long we will stay in prison depends on the political developments in Turkey. Ninety percent of the cases against Kurdish politicians are politically motivated. The independence of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary no longer exists in Turkey. As the judicial mechanism has become an instrument of the government to suppress the opposition, justice is not being served. In Turkey, 70 to 80 per cent of applications to the Constitutional Court and the ECtHR are based on the demand for a fair trial.

The politicisation of the judiciary in Turkey means that trials are no longer predictable. In its current form, the Turkish judicial system has excluded us Kurds from the “normal” legal system. Moreover, we are de facto deprived of our citizenship. Turks, Turkish politicians, have the right to political freedom, freedom of organisation and freedom of action. When it comes to Kurdish politicians, Kurdish women and youth, the justification is “membership in an organisation”.

Kurdish politicians are arrested and imprisoned for their speeches, mayors for their merits and Kurdish journalists for their news. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, basic human rights and constitutional rights are being usurped. For this reason, I and our former HDP leaders, MPs and co-mayors have been unjustly held as “hostages” for almost seven years.

The last time you were arrested was in 2016 during a demonstration in support of the arrested HDP MPs. Would you do it again if you were back?

In prison you have a lot of time to reflect, to question your own actions, to account for what you did and what you couldn’t do. I would do it again, looking back. Yes, I was arrested and detained because of solidarity. The reason why we are on trial in the Kobanê trial, which is currently being heard in the 22nd State Court in Ankara and in which the HDP executive committee, MPs, co-mayors and women’s movement activists are on trial, is because of the call for solidarity with the people of Kobanê who were resisting the brutality of the IS gangs. Because of this call, the prosecutor is asking for seven aggravated life sentences, two life sentences and 134 years for us. But looking back, I would still stand against the atrocities of IS and stand in solidarity with the people of Kobanê and Rojava.

You first became an MP from prison in 2007, but I read that you already have a long history of activism and politics. Why did you start at a very young age, what issues sparked your interest? Was there a person who inspired you?

I come from a political family: we have family members who were arrested and tortured during the fascist military coup of 12 September. Growing up in a Kurdish, Alevi and leftist tradition naturally had an influence on how I would go my way, as you can imagine. Especially in the 1990s, the state policy of denying, destroying and assimilating the Kurdish people, the eviction of thousands of villages and the forced migration of millions of Kurdish people led me to resist politically as a Kurd. During this time, my aunt, who was studying at Istanbul University, joined the guerrillas, which led me to become involved with socialist-marxist ideas and the ideal of a classless, borderless, exploitation-free society. The women’s work that I started in a district commission, the assessments of the Kurdish political movement, especially the assessments of Abdullah Ocalan on the women’s question, a women’s liberation paradigm to eliminate the slavery imposed on women by the 3000-year-old central civilisation system, against the sexist mentality that the male-dominated system ignores against women’s identity and condemns them to slavery, are the factors that influenced my active participation in politics.

Sebahat Tuncel in prison, in 2022

What are the demands of the Kurdish people?

The Kurdish people want to use all their economic and cultural rights that come from being part of a nation and determine their own destiny. The Kurdish area with a population of up to 50 million people worldwide is fragmented between four nation states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey) and the struggle to maintain its existence with the policies of oppression, violence and persecution of the states under the rule of law is the main cause of the phenomenon that is now called the Kurdish question. The vast majority of Kurds believe that the problem can be solved with a pluralist definition of the nation based on the equal and free unity of peoples without nation states, which are the scourge of humanity in the 21st century, and with a constitution that guarantees this pluralism. They believe that the democratic, ecological and women’s liberation understanding of democratic self-government, where each people determines its own future, will solve the problems. They also seek to build a peaceful life based on equality, freedom and solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East. With this formulation, they want to govern themselves with a democratic autonomous administration, live together with the peoples they live with in a Democratic Republic and live in solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East in the Democratic Confederation of the Middle East.

Do you think there will be a turning point in the Kurdish question if the opposition wins?

In order to solve the Kurdish question, the political and economic history of the Middle East over the last 200 years and of Turkey over the last 100 years must be analysed in detail. As long as the policy of extermination, denial and assimilation pursued by Turkey since 1924 remains unchanged, a solution to the Kurdish question does not seem possible. The approach of the opposition in Turkey (Millet Alliance) to the Kurdish people’s problem of freedom is far from the perspective of solving the problem. The achievements that the Kurdish people have made in Turkey are the result of the organised struggle of the Kurdish people, achieved at great cost and effort. As you may have noticed, the election campaign in Turkey was based on anti-Kurdish sentiment and nationalism. The National Alliance and the People’s Alliance have similar approaches to Turkey’s fundamental issues. However, the AKP government’s systematic violence against the Kurdish people since 2015 and the construction of a monist, authoritarian and fascist regime have exacerbated the problems. Therefore, a change of power, democratisation, securing human rights and freedoms, guaranteeing the independence of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and respecting international conventions would give a breath of fresh air to the people of Turkey. In a democratic environment, it would be easier to address the problems and put the solutions on the agenda. Even if the government changes, we will fight for the solution of the Kurdish people’s freedom problem, for the solution of the Kurdish question through dialogue and negotiations with the interlocutors and for an honourable peace by ending the security policy. So, the question is whether the turning point of the change of power will be fascism or democracy.

What do you think of the fact that the HDP contested the elections under the umbrella of the Green Left Party? I read an article by an analyst who criticised this election and described it as a kind of automatic target because not all Kurds are left-wing.

For the HDP to contest the elections with the Green Left Party was a necessity rather than a choice. The closure of the HDP and the threat of a political ban on HDP members made such a decision necessary. The HDP was founded as a negotiating party to play a role in resolving the Kurdish question in Turkey, with a perspective based on a radical democratic line established by the Kurdish political movement, individuals and organised structures from the left, socialist, ecological, feminist, LGBT-I movement, anti-capitalist and democratic Muslims in Turkey. The Green Left Party was one of the member parties of the HDP. As I have not read the article by the analyst you mentioned, I cannot judge it. Of course, the reasons why the Green Left Party did not fully achieve its intended goal will be assessed by the party bodies themselves. However, it should not be forgotten that despite the systematic state violence against Kurds and their friends since 2015, the Kurds are still the main force determining Turkey’s politics. If such pressure and violence were exerted against another party, there would no longer be a party. However, despite the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Kurdish politicians, the appointment of trustees for their communities and the closure of all their organised institutions, the Kurds persist in their struggle and preserve their achievements. The political campaign of extermination against Kurdish politicians, which began in 2009, continues uninterruptedly until today. In these 14 years, more than a hundred thousand people have been put on trial. And thousands of politicians have been officially banned from politics. Nevertheless, the success of the Green Left Party should not be underestimated. Of course, better results could have been achieved. We have more potential. I am sure that the shortcomings and problems of the leadership will be fully evaluated and with a strong self-criticism a new strong start will be made. The upcoming local elections in 2024 will be better organised and more prepared.

What kind of future do you envision for Turkey and the Kurds?

I believe that my people will be free, self-governing, democratic and ecological, that the paradigm of women’s liberation will come to life and that the peoples of Turkey and the Middle East will build an equal, free, democratic and peaceful life, which is what I am fighting for.

How will Erdoğan’s victory affect your situation and that of other imprisoned politicians and activists?

If Erdoğan wins, he will want to write a new constitution to institutionalise his one-man fascist regime. But the power poisoning, corruption and profiteering in the AKP, which has been in government for 20 years, has led to a deep decay in society. The AKP can only maintain its position by force and coercion. If Erdoğan wins, this situation is likely to lead to social problems, protests and revolts in the coming period. The coming days will be difficult for Turkey. The sexist, nationalist, religious, militarist, sexist, nationalist, religious, militarist alliance that Erdoğan has formed will continue to be against the Kurds. The politicised members of the judiciary appointed by the government will also continue this policy. But as I said, the developments in the world and in the region will force Erdoğan to change.

Source: La Stampa