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I chaired for three years the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. Before that, I served on the committee for a further three years. At almost each session of the IPU conferences—which took place twice a year—Turkey would appear before our committee as one of the countries that was oppressing its own elected politicians. We had a long-running battle with the Turks on the issue of Kurdish politicians, who were put in prison for little more than the kind of freedom of expression that
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all of us as elected politicians take for granted. Eventually, some of those politicians were released, only to be charged again on various counts.

A few days ago, one of those politicians, Leyla Zana—the name may be familiar to Members who follow Turkish human rights matters closely—was sentenced again to 10 years in prison by a Turkish court in Diyarbakir. The court ruled that she had violated the penal code and the anti-terror law in nine speeches, one of which was given here in the House of Commons.

Leyla Zana is accused of having supported, and spread propaganda in favour of, the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers Party. At a celebration in Diyarbakir, she stated that the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, should be regarded as one of three Kurdish leaders. That is, I think, a perfectly acceptable point of view, even though Ocalan is rightly in jail for having been involved in many of the terrorist attacks that took place in Turkey. I am pleased to hear that he is now out of solitary confinement. Leyla Zana will, of course, appeal against the verdict.

I mentioned Mr Inonu because he was the first Turkish politician to bring Leyla Zana into his party and into Parliament. That was the first instance of Kurds, mainly from the south-east of Turkey, being elected as Kurds in the Parliament. That was in 1991. Her decision at that time to take the parliamentary oath in Kurdish led to immediate calls for her arrest. She actually took the oath in Kurdish and Turkish, which is not unlike what I did when I was first admitted to this House; I took the oath in English and Welsh, and there was no threat to arrest me after doing that.

That was the first time that Kurdish had been spoken in the Turkish Parliament. Leyla Zana was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released in 2004 due to international pressure. She has received a lot of international prizes. She was awarded an international prize in 1994 and the Sakharov prize the following year. Despite her personal sufferings and losses during the 10 years of imprisonment—her husband and her children have had to leave Turkey and are in another country—she has continued to speak on behalf of her own people. Since her release in 2004, she has done so on every possible occasion. One such occasion was a meeting in this House of Commons. I was not present, but I am told that it was where she made one of the nine speeches for which she has been convicted again.

What Leyla Zana asks for is recognition for the Kurdish language and Kurdish identity, and freedom of expression, in addition to political and cultural rights. She seeks a non-violent and democratic solution for the Kurds living within Turkey’s borders.

A few months before, I had visited south-east Turkey for the first time in seven years. On the previous occasion, I had been there with the Select Committee on International Development, when we examined the support that the British Government were providing through export credit guarantees for the Ilisu dam in Turkey, which is a highly controversial development. The dam would result in the displacement of 80,000 people, mainly Kurds. They are told that they will receive compensation, but this plan has been around for a large number of years and nobody to whom I have spoken in south-east Turkey knows what the compensation will be. Organisations
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such as the World Bank, the United Nations and so on no longer give support for dam developments of this kind, which displace so many people. As a result of the International Development Committee’s report, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry rightly decided to withdraw British support for export credit guarantees. Since then, several other countries have also withdrawn their support, the latest being Germany—I think that the only country providing support is Switzerland.

I had lunch with Leyla Zana, who is regarded as a terrorist. I first met her when she was serving her prison sentence in Ankara. The prison governor allowed me two and a half hours with her, during which we discussed her situation. She had been given a small patch of land to garden, but as any hon. Member who knows prisons in Turkey will be aware, that prison was not a pleasant place to be for 10 years. The prison governor himself said to me at the time, “She should not be here.” It was obvious to everybody, except the Turkish Government, that she should not have been in prison.

After 10 years, due to international pressure, Leyla Zana was released. She still holds the same views; nothing has changed. A growing number of terrorist attacks are being carried out in south-east Turkey. The number of people who have been killed in that civil war so far is 30,000 to 45,000, including more than 20,000 Kurdish guerrillas, 5,000 Turkish soldiers and security force members and 5,000 civilians—of course, millions of people have been uprooted.

Those of us who understand the importance of culture and language really understand how the Kurds in south-east Turkey feel. I am not saying that this is the entire answer to the problem, but I believe that if the Turkish Government made more moves to meet the social and cultural needs of the Kurds in south-east Turkey, that would diffuse some of the support that many people in that region give the PKK. I spoke to a mayor of a town—I will not mention it or him by name, in case he lands up in jail—who told me that his brother was fighting in the mountains and that he was ready to send his son to fight in the mountains too. The strength of feeling had grown enormously in the six or seven years since I was last in the region.

I had various conversations with people in the Turkish Government, but the situation was difficult for Ankara—it still is—at the time I was there because the Government were focused on their own existence. They had been in trouble with the courts and there was a possibility that the Government of the ruling AK party would be dissolved. But, of course, Ankara has, for decades, denied the existence of more than 12 million ethnic Kurds and has forced them to hide their customs, language and very identity or face charges of treason. That discrimination against one fifth of the country’s population was institutionalised in the 1920s, with the founding of the Turkish republic, which was committed to imposing a uniform national identity.

The persecution of the Kurds escalated dramatically in the 1980s, as the PKK gained strength. In 1991, at the height of that persecution, Leyla Zana became the first and only Kurdish woman elected to Turkey’s Parliament since the foundation of the republic—I have already mentioned what she was then jailed for. She had taken the first steps on the path to Ankara central closed prison, which I can assure hon. Members is a pretty ghastly place.

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As anybody who visits south-east Turkey will realise—I took our ambassador there; our ambassador was fairly new and had not been to the south-east before—to many Kurds, Leyla Zana is a modern-day Joan of Arc, a champion of human rights for her people. Her critics see her as a separatist puppet, ill-trained for a Government post and obsessed with challenging the official myth that no ethnicity except Turk exists in Turkey.

When Leyla Zana was 15, she married the former mayor of Diyarbakir, Mehdi Zana, and developed her political consciousness the hard way; he was jailed during the military rule in 1980 for the promotion of the Kurdish cause, and she and her children visited him in prison. She told a journalist:

She said that the Turkish guards beat them. She said:

I do not know whether any hon. Members have seen Harold Pinter’s “Mountain Language,” but it is an exceptional play lasting only about an hour and half, and I saw it at the National Theatre. It involves only three people—a Kurdish mother, her son, who is in jail, and the jailer. The mother, who speaks Kurdish only, is unable to speak to her son throughout her visit to the jail, because Kurdish is prohibited and only Turkish is allowed. The play is stunning and once one has seen it, the message becomes clear.

From the time of those visits, Zana began to fight back. In 1984, when her children were old enough, she started school. In three years, she made progress very quickly and she then took a job with the newly established Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir. In the course of defending the rights of her imprisoned husband and other detainees, Zana herself fell victim to official brutality. She said:

Zana subsequently ran for parliament and won a seat in 1991 on an SHP coalition ticket—the SHP is the sister party of the Labour party, it is a member of Socialist International and it was Inonu’s party. After her open embrace of Kurdish rights before a national audience, an outraged military—one should never forget how strong the military are in Turkey—applied pressure to the SHP. She and the other SHP deputies were forced out of the party and founded the Democracy party.

Zana kept her seat for three years while the Ankara state security court’s public prosecutor pushed the National Assembly to lift parliamentary immunity from prosecution for the Democracy party deputies. In March 1994, Parliament accepted the charge that Democracy party members were affiliated with the PKK and lifted their immunity. Authorities interrogated Zana for two weeks and charged her with affiliation to the PKK. Before the year was out, the Ankara state security court convicted Zana and the three other former Democracy party deputies that I mentioned—Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Dogan—of membership of an armed gang, and sentenced each to 15 years imprisonment. The then Prime Minister, Tancu Çiller, justified the incident as the PKK’s dismissal from Parliament. The Democracy party was outlawed, and other former MPs went into exile in Belgium.

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Zana spent 10 years of her young life in prison, and has now been convicted for another 10 years. She spent her time in prison reading, studying, writing letters to supporters and tending to her little garden. She hardly ever sees her children, because they now live in another country. I met her daughter and asked her whether she wanted to go into politics like her mother. She shook her head violently and said, “No, I want to be an IT consultant.”

In the south-east of Turkey, everybody talks about Leyla Zana. She has become a role model and a source of pride for Kurdish women. She is often credited with improving their position in the patriarchal Kurdish society. After her example, Kurdish women feel more encouraged to break with the old traditions of obeying their men and devoting their lives to housekeeping. It must be said that those traditions do pervade Kurdish culture. The most interesting point about studies of Kurdish nationalism, especially in the Ottoman empire, is that they are only about men and do not mention women at all. Under the weight of its historical traditions, Kurdish society has very paternal characteristics. It is highly probable that a foreigner browsing through those studies would gain the impression that Kurdish society is composed only of men. It is as though no Kurdish woman lived between the legendary warrior, Black Fatma, who fought in the Crimean war in the 1850s and Leyla Zana herself.

Zana has paid a high price for her place in history. Although she suffers from a blood circulation disorder—during her first period in prison she required frequent visits to the prison clinic—she told her lawyer to play down her ill-health. Whenever we met the Turkish delegations at the IPU human rights commission, they would tell me that Leyla Zana had been offered the option of leaving prison early on grounds of ill-health, but she refused it. She wanted to win her freedom on the justice of her cause.

Globally, several human rights organisations have raised the profile of all the MPs. Amnesty International named Leyla as a special focus case and members of the US Congress and of several European Parliaments nominated her for the Nobel peace prize. As I said, she won the Sakharov prize.

Turkey’s internal political climate has changed significantly as fears of militant Kurdish separatism diminished after Ocalan was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Turkey also wants to join the European Union. However, from the evidence of my visits to the south-east of Turkey over the past six years, that desire has somewhat diminished. The Turks are a proud people and they feel that they are being snubbed by the international community. Nevertheless, they have had to make changes in many of their laws to attempt to comply with European Union membership.

On paper, the reforms have been encouraging. The ban on broadcasting in Kurdish was lifted, with certain qualifications, in 2001 and 2002. Other legal changes allow for the teaching of languages, including Kurdish, but the authorities have yet to approve any courses in Kurdish. Despite recent reforms, the Turkish authorities still appear to view the legitimate requests of Kurdish citizens for linguistic and cultural rights as a danger to Turkish territorial integrity. Of course, people such as
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Leyla Zana continue to pay the price. She still advocates co-operation and fraternity between all of Turkey’s people. She has said:

She has lived that lesson.

People living in the south-east of Turkey still have enormous problems. The mayor of Diyarbakir told me that freedom of speech was slipping away in the region, and people were not allowed to use the Kurdish language in many official situations, so a lot of resentment was building up. That fuelled support for the PKK and harmed relations with neighbouring countries, such as Iraq. When I met the deputy chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, he said that he understood that to defeat the PKK, the Government had to address the grievances of the Kurds in the south-east. Military means alone would not be successful. That is the clear message. If the Turks really want to solve the problems of south-east Turkey, people cannot be prosecuted for using the letter “w” in an official invitation written in both Kurdish and Turkish because it is not part of the Turkish alphabet. People should not be arrested for singing Kurdish songs or using their own language in official situations. All the groups I talked to in the south-east were strongly opposed to the building of the Ilisu dam, which was the subject of little or no consultation.

Last week, the European Council, in its report on accession, discussed enlargement and mentioned Turkey in particular. It said:

Substantial efforts to ensure that Turkey meets the Copenhagen criteria must be made in several fields, such as continued judicial reform; establishing an anti-corruption strategy; effective protection of citizens’ rights; full implementation of a policy of zero tolerance of torture and ill-treatment; ensuring freedom of expression and religion in law and in practice for all religious communities; respect for property rights; respect for and protection of minorities; strengthening of cultural rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and trade union rights; and the civilian authority’s control of the military.

As regards the south-east of Turkey, the Council takes note of the Turkish Government’s decision to complete the south-eastern Anatolia project—the GAP—and emphasises the need to implement measures to ensure economic, social and cultural development. The Council, like us all, condemns all terrorist attacks and violence in Turkish territory in the strongest terms possible and expresses its full solidarity with the people of Turkey. The EU reiterates that it absolutely supports Turkey in its fight against terrorism, which must be conducted with due regard for human rights, fundamental freedoms and international law while preserving regional peace and security.

The European Parliament has also written a draft report on the Council’s report as it affects Turkey. It contains a series of points about human rights as well
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as about the need for respect for and the protection of minorities. It is only a draft report, but it will be coming before the European Parliament shortly.

I strongly support Turkish membership of the EU. It would be good for Turkey and for the rest of the EU, too. However, it must meet some provisions. There must be faster movement on reform. There must be respect for the cultural and linguistic rights of Kurds—I can hardly describe the Kurds in Turkey as a minority, since they make up 12 million of the population. It is incumbent on us all to keep putting pressure on the Turkish Government to meet the criteria that the EU would wish Turkey to meet if it is to join.

I have great affection for Turkey and its people. Since they were ruled by the military, which was not all that long ago, the IPU has been quite patient with Turkey. We have congratulated them when there has been progress and we have given them a sharp kick when we think that they could be making greater progress in certain areas.

Finally, on Leyla Zana, the IPU sent people to her first trial. They said that she had a totally unfair trial and that her defence counsel was not given the proper opportunity to put the case on her behalf. When she was sentenced, there was an appeal. The same judge who made the judgment in the first case started the case off by saying, “I was the judge at her first trial, and I am not going to change my mind.” Whatever new arguments there were, he had already made it clear that he would not change his mind.

If Leyla Zana comes before a court again, I shall be very concerned. As things are in Turkey, she will not get a fair trial. When she was sentenced last week, her defence counsel was not there. He had been told that the trial would start later in the day, and was then phoned about 10 minutes before the trial started to be told that it was starting. He asked for a bit more time, and I think that he was given 10 minutes. When they went back to the court, the trial had already taken place. Leyla Zana’s defence counsel, once again, was unable to put the argument on her behalf. I have deep concerns about that case, and I hope that we will all lobby on behalf of all those who should be getting proper human rights in Turkey and who are not.

6.24 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): May I start with a provisional apology to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House? I have an important engagement during the course of the evening. If the debate runs its course I shall, of course, be back in the Chamber for the end, but should it finish early I might have difficulty in doing so. I apologise if that turns out to be the case.

My hon. Friends on the Front Bench can relax. I do not intend on this occasion to treat the House to my views on the European Union, although some will be disappointed to hear that. I have long since learned that it is sensible to have only one rebellion at a time, and my current rebellion focuses on Heathrow airport. I shall settle for that rebellion for the time being, although there may be another occasion at some stage in the future when I can come back to the European Union.

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