Leyla Zana giving a speech at Kurdish new year celebrations, Diyarbakir, March 21, 2007
May 3, 1961 |
|Occupation||Member of Turkish Parliament, Peace Activist|
Leyla Zana (born May 3, 1961 in Silvan, Diyarbakır Province), is a Kurdish politician, who was imprisoned for 10 years for her political activism, which was deemed by the Turkish courts to be against the unity of the country. When she was a member of pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, she was banned from joining any political party for five years with the Constitutional Court's decision to ban this party. She has been elected as an independent member of parliament for Diyarbakır by the support of Peace and Democracy Party.
She was awarded the 1995 Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, but was unable to collect it until her release in 2004. She was also awarded the Rafto Prize in 1994 after being recognized by the Rafto Foundation for being incarcerated for her peaceful struggle for the human rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey and the neighbouring countries.
Leyla Zana was born in May 1961 to a traditional family in the small village of Bache in Eastern Turkey. One of four sisters and one brother, Leyla was a rebel from childhood. Defiant of the strict religion and a male dominated social order, she refused to wear a head scarf before she was married, and afterwords she wore one for a short time only.
She attended elementary school for a year and a half, only to be stopped by her extremely traditional father, who did not believe in educating girls.
At the age of fifteen she was married to her father's cousin, Mehdi Zana, a man twenty years her senior. Recalling her frustration at the time, when she angrily beat her father with her fists-something no other Kurdish girl would do-she says: "I don't blame my family or my husband, rather I blame the social conditions [in Kurdistan]. These must change."
Ironically, it was her marriage to Mehdi, a Kurdish activist, that presented her with the possibilities for change in both her personal and social conditions. Through him, Leyla encountered state repression in its fullest, and that inevitably politicized her.
After moving to Diyarbakir (the major Kurdish city in Eastern Turkey) with her husband, Leyla gave birth to their son, Ronay, in 1976. The following year, her husband was elected Mayor of Diyarbakir by an overwhelming margin.
The 1980 military coup in Turkey, however, brought about a new wave of oppression and persecution for Kurds. Political and individual freedoms were curtailed in the name of national security and democracy. Mehdi Zana was among thousands of activists who were arrested and tortured for their political beliefs. He was subsequently sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Leyla was now a young, single mother; her son, Ronay, was five, and she was pregnant with her daughter, Ruken. Whereas before she had been heavily influenced by her relatives, now she was forced, as she puts it, "to think for myself and act for myself." During the next few years, she followed her husband from prison to prison, from Diyarbakir to Aydin, from Afyon to Eskisehir. In the process, she learned to speak Turkish. Encouraged by her husband, she managed to study on her own and became the first woman in Dlyarbakir, to receive a high school diploma without attending school.
1991 oath in parliament
In 1991 she became the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish parliament. She created a scandal when she spoke Kurdish on the floor of the parliament after being sworn in, even though it was known to be illegal. The Kurdish language, even when spoken in private, had been illegal for decades in Turkey. Only in that year, 1991, was the Kurdish language finally legalized, though speaking Kurdish remained illegal in public spaces, as Zana was sworn in. Her remarks ended,
I swear by my honor and my dignity before the great Turkish people to protect the integrity and independence of the State, the indivisible unity of people and homeland, and the unquestionable and unconditional sovereignty of the people. I swear loyalty to the Constitution. I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.
Only the final sentence of the oath was spoken in Kurdish: "I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people."
Although Zana's parliamentary immunity protected her, after she joined the Democracy Party, that party was banned and her immunity was stripped. In December 1994, along with four other Democracy Party MPs (Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Dogan), she was arrested and charged with treason and membership in the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The treason charges were not put before the court, and Zana denied PKK affiliation; but with the prosecution relying on witness statements allegedly obtained under torture, Zana and the others were sentenced to 15 years in prison. At her sentencing, she asserted,
This is a conspiracy. What I am defending is perfectly clear. I don’t accept any of these accusations. And, if they were true I’d assume responsibility for them, even if it cost me my life. I have defended democracy, human rights, and brotherhood between peoples. And I’ll keep doing so for as long as I live.
She was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. In 1994 she was awarded the Rafto Prize, and in 1995, was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European parliament. She also won the Bruno Kreisky Award. In 1998 her sentence was extended because of a letter she had written that was published in a Kurdish newspaper, which allegedly expressed banned pro-separatist views. While in prison she published a book titled Writings from Prison.
With Turkey applying to become a member of the European Union, the EU repeatedly called for her release on human rights grounds, making its position clear by awarding Zana with the Sakharov Prize in 1995.
In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Turkey after a review of her trial; although Turkey did not recognize the result, in 2003 a new harmonization law permitted retrials based on ECHR decisions. In 2002, a film named The Back of the World, directed by Spanish-Peruvian filmmaker Javier Corcuera, examined her case. In April 2004, in a trial which the defendants frequently boycotted, their convictions and sentences were reaffirmed. In June 2004, after a prosecutor requested quashing the prior verdict on a technicality, the High Court of Appeals ordered Zana and the others released.
In January 2005, the European Court of Human Rights awarded Zana and each of the other defendants 9000 € from the Turkish government, ruling Turkey had violated her rights of free expression. Zana and others announced the new political formation Democratic Society Movement (DTH). On August 17, 2005, Democratic Society Party (DTP) was founded as the merger of Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) and DTH.
Later political activities
As of 2007, Zana is active in human rights issues in Turkey and working in the new party she co founded in 2005. One controversial idea is her proposal to reorganize Turkey into a set of federal states, one of them being Kurdistan.
In April 2008, Zana was sentenced to two years in prison by Turkish authorities for allegedly "spreading terrorist propaganda" by saying in a speech, "Kurds have three leaders, namely Massoud Barzani, Celal Talebanî and Abdullah Ocalan." Massoud Barzani is the president of the Kurdistan federal region in Iraq, Celal Talabani is the ethnic Kurdish president of Iraq, and Abdullah Ocalan is the imprisoned Kurdish leader of PKK in Turkey.
In December 2008, Zana was sentenced to another 10 years in prison by the Turkish court. The court ruled that she had violated the Turkish penal code and the Turkish anti-terror law in nine different speeches. The European Union Turkey Civic Commission called on the European Union and the international community to take political action and strongly condemn Turkey for having convicted Leyla Zana to ten new years in prison. Leyla Zana released the following statement to the EUTCC:
“The case against me is a violation against freedom of thought, and represents a threat to every Kurd in Turkey. The decision of the court is just another way to repress, silence and punish the Kurds. The mentality governing this country is that problems can be resolved by anti democratic and repressive means and that unfair trial can provide political and social peace. But despite all this, our people will claim their legitimate rights, and will continue to struggle for this as long as it takes”.
These prison sentences were overturned by higher courts.
In December 2009, Constitutional Court of Turkey banned the DTP due to alleged links with the PKK and Leyla Zana as well as Ahmet Türk, Aysel Tuğluk, Nurettin Demirtaş, Selim Sadak and 30 other Kurdish politicians were banned from politics for 5 years. While this decision forbids them to be members of political parties, it does not prevent them from being elected to the parliament as independent deputies.
She was re-elected to Parliament in the 12 June 2011 general election.
On July 1, 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Leyla Zana in his office. This meeting took place when in a recent Hürriyet interview that Leyla Zana said that was hopeful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would solve the Kurdish–Turkish conflict. These words were criticized as 'naive' by the BDP leadership but were welcomed by the Turkish government.
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- Turkey Leader’s Meeting with Controversial Kurdish Politician Raises Hopes
- CILDEKT International Committee for the Liberation of the Kurdish Parliamentarians Imprisoned in Turkey
- The Back of the World at Rotten Tomatoes