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Political Prisoners Persevere: Turkish Conflict and Effects on the Kurds

April 13, 2017

Portrait of Serra Hakyemez

Portrait of Serra Hakyemez
Photo by L.K. Spence

For over 30 years, Kurdish dissidents have been captured, tortured, and imprisoned by the Turkish government. What is it like to spend years fighting for political change, just to end up in prison? How does the Turkish government interact with the Kurdish population, and why do the sides continue to clash? Serra Hakyemez, who will be joining the faculty in the Departments of Global Studies and Anthropology in the fall of 2017, has spent years working on political prisoners in Turkey, and the social, cultural, and ideological aspects of the Kurdish movement.

After studying in Turkey, the UK, and the US, Hakyemez received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Johns Hopkins University. Finding the "big" questions posed by political science and economics unsatisfactory in understanding the promises and perils of everyday life, she realized she wanted to study anthropology to "produce theory from the ground."

She focused on cultural anthropology and wrote her PhD dissertation on political prisoners in Turkey—specifically, Kurds. Hakyemez conducted research on "terror trials," which implicate Kurds from all walks of life for being involved in various political activities. The Turkish government deploys anti-terrorism laws to stifle the Kurdish dissent against whom anything and everything can be used as an evidence of terrorism, she says, that outlines terror trialsand she is interested in how this affects both sides of the fight for justice.

The Turkish Republic, upon formation, called for a country with "one language, one state, one culture," says Hakyemez. This has led to a series of rebellions for over 100 years. The Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) was formed in the 1980s, calling for an independent Kurdistan within Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The focus of the movement, says Hakyemez, has changed from “a sort of independence to now a fight for equality and political change."

As she researched how the Turkish law enforcement incriminates people within the movement through collecting intelligence, creating evidence and prosecuting with terrorism charges, she also looked at how these captured Kurds defend themselves, both in prison and on trial. The terror trials are “so vague,” Hakyemez says, “that anyone could be created as a terrorist.” She explained how one man was kept in prison for four years under the wrong name, just because during his trial the judge would not listen to or look at the suspect, only the evidence crafted by the prosecutor.

Strategies used by the government include surveillance, such as hacking into emails and shutting down social media platforms, as well as excessive police coverage at protests and gatherings, with armed forces and tanks. "The last time I was working in the field in 2015," Hakyemez said, "I attended a political rally in Diyarbakir with two friends and a bomb was set off by the Islamic State (ISIS)." These tactics are used, she says, to completely deactivate Kurdish political activity, in efforts to create the "perfect obedient Turkish citizen."

Through interviewing over 50 prisoners, from the 1980s all the way up to the 2000s, Hakyemez has found that many of these protesters have been in prison for decades. Sometimes, these Kurdish dissidents are kept in prison for up to five years without even a sentence.

Treatment of the prisoners has gotten better over the years, but it's still awful. Torture was the most prominent in 80s and 90s, says Hakyemez, but still exists today. The Diyarbakır Prison, where many Kurds are held, has been deemed one of the ten worst prisons in the world.

She has also learned the strategies that Kurds use to either get out of being sent to prison or to get out of prison earlier. A response from someone who has been captured and thinks he has a chance of being released would sound something like this: "I don't know anybody from the Kurdish movement, I know that it exists but I'm not part of the movement; I'm a simple businessman." However, Kurds who believe they have a high chance of going to prison will often defend the Kurdish movement and make political declarations before the court that might sound like: "Your court is a colonial court. Your authority is not legitimate. History will prove me right.” These prisoners are viewed as heroes of the movement, both in prison and to those who hear about it outside.

Generally, there are more men involved in the movement, with about two-thirds of the current prisoners being men, says Hakyemez, but there is a separate women's movement, as well as increased female involvement in the PKK.

It is much harder to interview subjects now than it was in 2008-2009, 2013-2014, when Hakyemez was in the field. There was a negotiation process between the Turkish government and the PKK, she says, and officials were much calmer about journalists and anthropologists researching the Kurdish movement. Now, there is an "emergency rule" and journalists are either imprisoned or deported. "Media is basically dead in Turkey," Hakyemez said. Social and editorial media is now either used as a government tool or completely shut down when thought of as a threat—a common tactic of a repressive regime.

Though not an uplifting topic, Hakyemez has found signs of hope and positivity in her research. "Anything can be normalized," she says. "A state of emergency is now normalized in Turkey, due to mass purges, bombings, and constant capturing of dissidents. But so is activism, and this is inspiring," she says. Activism is increasingly important, and as long people keep fighting for what they believe in, as Kurds do, change can happen.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.