Iconic Kurdish activist poised for political comeback

AFP , Saturday 14 May 2011

While preparations for Turkish elections are on full swing, Turkish kurds feel that this time they are poised to return

She has been through torture, imprisonment and political banishment but iconic Kurdish activist Leyla Zana is fighting on, poised to return to Turkey's parliament after two decades.

As Turkey heads to elections on June 12, the 50-year-old is busy campaigning in the mainly Kurdish southeast -- and the atmosphere there is a far cry from the days when she found herself in jail after uttering a single sentence in Kurdish in parliament.

Zana's bus is now inscribed with slogans in her mother tongue, Kurdish music blares from loudspeakers and she addresses the cheering crowd in Kurdish.

"After 20 years, your votes will mean not only a parliamentary seat for me but also support for the Kurdish freedom struggle," Zana told a rally in her hometown of Silvan this week.

Turkey's Kurds saw their rights notably expanded in recent years as Ankara moved to align with European Union norms and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to work for reconciliation.

The effort however has faltered amid continuing violence and the government's failure to draw up a clear strategy to cajole separatist Kurdish rebels into laying down arms.

Unrest has surged ahead of the elections with violent Kurdish demonstrations and police clampdowns, deadly attacks on the security forces and military operations against militants holed up in the mountains.

But Zana remains optimistic. "Both sides -- Turks and Kurds -- have reached a certain level of maturity," she told AFP in brief remarks ahead of the Silvan rally.

"We have come to a point where we will see whether we can have a partnership and what the status of the Kurds will be," she said, referring to Kurdish demands for autonomy.

Zana became the face of the Kurdish political struggle when she won a parliamentary seat in 1991 as a bloody insurgency led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) raged in the southeast.

She caused nationalist uproar in her first appearance in parliament when, after taking her oath in Turkish, she added a sentence in Kurdish calling for peace.
At the ceremony, Zana also wore a headband in yellow, green and red -- the colours of the PKK, which had taken up arms against Ankara in 1984, earning itself the label of a terrorist group.

The Kurdish language was banned at the time and the courts punished even peaceful expression of Kurdish identity and freedom demands.

The party to which Zana belonged was subsequently outlawed for collaborating with the PKK and, along with several colleagues, she was banned from politics and jailed in 1994.

International rights groups soon launched campaigns to secure her release and in 1995 the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov freedom of thought award.
Zana spent 10 years behind bars before she was released in 2004 under EU-inspired reforms.

"I never gave up trust in democratic struggle," she said this week. "My spirits are very high. I am full of hope -- it is my only capital."
Married off to a cousin at the age of 14 after only a year in school, Zana was an unlikely candidate to become a political icon.

It was through her marriage to Mehdi Zana, a Kurdish activist who was jailed in 1980, that she became aware of politics and gained a high-school diploma through home study.

Along with other Kurdish women, the young mother of two went from jail to jail to see her husband, often facing abuse by security forces and hearing the screams of tortured inmates.

The women would shout and throw stones at prison walls, with Zana herself eventually detained and tortured.

Turkey's first Kurdish woman lawmaker, Zana inspired others in the heavily patriarchal community: women are today at the forefront of Kurdish political life, struggling also for gender equality.

"I know she will do better than the men... I'm so excited to see her back on the way to parliament," shopkeeper Mehmet Nedimdag said as he watched Zana walking through the crowd in Silvan.

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