CHE Kurds are arrested for trying to study their own language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 5 18:40:43 UTC 2004

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,
>>From the issue dated July 19, 2002

Silenced Minority
In Turkey, Kurds are arrested for trying to study their own language


Diyarbakir, Turkey
The police here in southeastern Turkey will no longer arrest someone
simply for speaking Kurdish. But when university students across the
country circulated petitions, requesting optional courses on the Kurdish
language, the authorities clamped down hard.

More than 1,300 students have been detained by police -- often while
trying to present the signed petitions to the rectors of the universities
they attend. According to human-rights activists, more than 200 students
have been accused of violating anti-terrorist laws. Often the formal
charge is supporting an illegal organization, in this case the Kurdistan
Workers' Party, or PKK.

Three years ago, after the PKK's leader, Abdullah calan, was captured and
sentenced to death -- a sentence not yet carried out -- the group called
off a bloody 15-year rebellion for self-rule for the Kurdish-populated
southeastern region of the country. But the Kurds, who make up about 20
percent of Turkey's 65 million people, continue pressing for more rights.

The students who have been arrested recently are being tried at special
state-security courts across Turkey and face a maximum prison sentence of
seven and a half years. In separate university disciplinary actions, about
300 students have been expelled or suspended from their studies.

"I can speak Kurdish, but I can't read Kurdish poetry or literature," says
Harun Ece, a student of archival science, at Marmara University, in
Istanbul. The university suspended Mr. Ece for a year for circulating a
petition favoring Kurdish courses. Mr. Ece is also one of 28 students
being tried together in a state security court in Istanbul for their role
in the petition drive. "Unless we can study it," he says, "Kurdish
language and culture will disappear."

History of Oppression

Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic, in 1923, the
authorities have tried to wipe out the distinct identity of the Kurds,
Turkey's largest minority. Until a change in legislation, in 1991, the use
of Kurdish was totally banned in numerous situations, such as speaking or
singing in public, and publishing.

Kurds live in neighboring parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where they have
also suffered repression, with the exception of a portion of Iraq that
Kurds control with the help of the United Nations. Yet only Turkey, home
to the largest Kurdish population, has gone to great lengths to eradicate
the Kurds' culture.

Today officials sometimes try to justify the ban on the use of Kurdish in
education by claiming the language is too primitive. According to Nurset
Aras, a professor of medicine and rector of the University of Ankara,
"Kurdish is not a true language. It is not adequate for academic

Linguists dismiss the notion. Indeed, Kurdish has a literary tradition
that goes back at least three and a half centuries. Mem  Zn, the names of
two lovers, is an epic story of tragic love written by the Kurdish poet
and Muslim scholar Ehmed Xan at the end of the 17th century. It is
considered one of the greatest classics of Kurdish literature.

Kurdish is closely related to Persian, the language of Iran, but unrelated
to Turkish. The language is taught today at several European universities.

In the last few years, the harshest restrictions on speaking and
publishing in Kurdish have been relaxed, and something of a cultural
renaissance is under way. Young people gather in Kurdish cafes to drink
strong tea and listen to a blend of modern and traditional Kurdish music
and discuss the growing number of Kurdish books sold legally.

The petition campaign began last fall, shortly after a key change to
Turkey's Constitution. In October, in response to urging by the European
Union, Turkey amended its Constitution to end a ban on broadcasting in
languages other than Turkish. So far, however the government has
authorized very little Kurdish-language programming.

In November, a group of students at Istanbul University started collecting
signatures from their classmates on an appeal for optional Kurdish
courses. Within weeks, students at about half of Turkey's 53 public
universities did the same. Despite the threat of expulsion, about 12,000
students across Turkey have signed a petition.

A few students subsequently withdrew their names under pressure from the

At the same time, some parents circulated petitions asking for Kurdish
lessons in their children's public schools. Some of the parents have also
been arrested.

Mistreatment of students in police custody appears to have been
widespread, especially outside the largest city, Istanbul. Many complain
of having been blindfolded during questioning, and of being hit by police
demanding that they admit they were following the orders of the PKK.

According to Amnesty International, Mrsel Sargut, a 19-year-old literature
student at Istanbul University who was arrested last November 30, was
tortured while in police custody. He was allegedly stripped and sprayed
with pressurized water and then raped with a nightstick by police after he
refused to "confess" to being a member of the PKK.

Orhan Tung, press counselor at the Turkish Embassy in London, says that
"80 to 90 percent" of allegations of mistreatment are fabrications. Yet he
admits that the Turkish security forces have a history of abusing
prisoners. "There has been steady improvement over the last five or six
years," he says. "We admit we still have a long way to go."

Indicted students in Diyarbakir and Istanbul questioned recently by a
reporter said they circulated the petitions on their own initiative and
had no contact with the PKK. "It is not important who organized it," says
Tahir Eli, a human-rights lawyer representing three of the charged
students in Diyarbakir. "The right to petition the government is
guaranteed by the Constitution."

Accusations of Terrorism

Prime Minister Blent Ecevit set the tone of the response to the petition
drive earlier this year when he denounced demands for Kurdish study at
schools and universities as "aimed at dividing Turkey." He added, "We
cannot accept it. It's impossible."

The authorities justify the crackdown on students by saying it is
necessary to prevent moves toward a breakup of Turkey. A
government-sponsored declaration that the rectors of all 77 public and
private universities were required to sign in February claims the
petitions represent a continuation of the PKK's rebellion by nonmilitary
means. "The right of petition is being exploited as an insidious
substitute for murder and terror," it says.

The declaration goes on to state that if students cannot be persuaded to
withdraw their support for the petition, they will be considered
"accomplices within our universities of the terrorist network."

Only a handful of faculty members have protested the policy. Those who
have spoken out are generally academics with domestic or international
reputations big enough to provide a degree of protection from dismissal or
prosecution. Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics at Istanbul University
and a frequent commentator on Turkish television, rejects the authorities'
argument that repression is needed to keep Turkey from being torn apart.
"It's just the opposite," he says.

"Only democracy can maintain the integrity of the country."

The decision to deal with the petition drive so harshly has disappointed
those calling for conciliatory steps to end the threat of renewed fighting
in the southeast. Human-rights activists, trade unionists, and other
political moderates favor a more democratic and less militaristic approach
to the Kurds. The Turkish government's harsh approach to the petitioners
has also placed additional embarrassing obstacles in the way of its
efforts to join the European Union.

Before the European Union will invite Turkey to join, it is demanding
"respect and protection of minorities, including the right to have
education and broadcasting in their own language," says Jean-Christophe
Filori, the spokesman on enlargement issues for the European Commission,
the executive body of the European Union. But Turkey has shown "no
flexibility on the education issue," he says.

The European Union's 15 members have a checkered history of policies
toward the languages of their own minority groups. Until a few decades
ago, some countries -- France is a prime example -- were hostile toward
minority languages and banned their use in public schools. But "in the
last 20 years in Europe there has been a great flowering of support for
minority languages," says Robert Dunbar, a lecturer in law at the
University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and a specialist in language rights.
French public schools in regions with minority populations now provide
optional lessons in the local regional language, like Basque, Breton, or

Banned Lessons

In Turkey, however, even private Kurdish lessons remain illegal. "Turkey
appears to be the only European state which prohibits teaching in a
minority language," says Mr. Dunbar. In February he took part in an
eight-day fact-finding visit to Turkey organized by the Kurdish Human
Rights Project, an independent, London-based group. The resulting report,
which he co-wrote, is highly critical of Turkey's language policy.

No Turkish university has been allowed to teach or carry out research into
Kurdish language, literature, or culture. The Kurdish Institute, a small
independent research center established in Istanbul in 1992, is legal but
is constantly harassed by the authorities. The police sealed the
institute's offices for four months this year after prosecutors charged
the institute's managers with the criminal offense of providing
Kurdish-language lessons. A judge recently exonerated them.

Hasan Kaya, a former schoolteacher dismissed for promoting the Kurdish
language, is chairman of the institute. He says "no Turkish academics are
allowed to participate in Kurdish-language research, but a few foreign
scholars come here regularly and quietly carry out their research."

Sefa ztrk was suspended for three months from her studies at Yildiz
Technical University, in Istanbul, for supporting the petition campaign.

University administrators informed her that she was being punished for
"threatening the indivisible unity of the country," the reason given many
of the other suspended students.

But unlike most of the other students who have been punished, Ms. ztrk is
an ethnic Turk. After she was charged with the criminal offense of
supporting an illegal organization, her parents broke off relations with
her. But Ms. ztrk says she does not regret her actions.

"For me the idea that a person should have the right to an education in
their mother tongue is fundamental," she says. "I did what was right, and
my conscience is clear."
Section: International
Page: A34

Copyright  2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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