Originally published: https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/43362
23 September 2021 | Ozlem Goner
Among the thousands of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkish colonial prisons, Aysel Tuğluk, who has been in captivity for nearly five years, has been sick and her medical condition requires immediate release from prison, which the Turkish state continues to deny. Her friends report that Tuğluk’s medical condition got worse after the racist attacks during her mother’s funeral in Ankara. Tuğluk’s life, her ongoing imprisonment despite her medical condition, her family’s early experience with torture and death in Turkish colonial prisons, as well as her political activism against the gross human rights violations and torture targeting the Kurds in the 1990s, is one illustrative case of how prisons are central to the continuity of Turkish colonial rule on the Kurds and the historicity of the Kurdish political prisoners’ anti-colonial abolitionist struggles.
Although capitalist nation-states have used the carceral system of punishment as a tool to tame the “unruly” or “excess” populations globally, and thousands of Turkish dissidents have also faced imprisonment, with increased rates under oppressive regimes such as the military juntas and the current dictatorial regime of the AKP-MHP coalition, colonized populations, such as the Kurds in Turkey, similar to the Black and Palestinian people, have faced extreme rates of criminalization and experienced intensified racist violence during their terms of arrest and imprisonment. Hence the carceral system Kurds face in Turkey will be named here as a colonial prison, as part of a larger process of colonization aiming to destroy political and cultural presence of Kurdishness as such.
Aysel Tuğluk is from the Dersim region, an Alevi-Kurdish municipality under the colonial Turkish rule, which witnessed a genocide at the hands of the Turkish state in 1938 with tens of thousands massacred and others forced to migrate and assimilate in Sunni-Turkish towns of Turkey. Tuğluk’s family lived in the nearby town of Elazığ, where her father worked; a town divided sharply between a Sunni-Turkish-fascist bloc and various factions of socialist and Kurdish revolutionary movements in the 1970s. The family moved to Istanbul for the circumstances explained below where Tuğluk earned a law degree and worked in the field of human rights. She is a founding member and the first co-chair of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), one of the early figures of the Kurdish party landscape pushing for women’s freedom and the co-chair system, and was elected as a member of parliament in 2007. In 2009, when the Turkish Constitutional Court outlawed the DTP, it also banned Tuğluk from electoral party politics. During 2011-2015, she entered the Parliament as an independent candidate of the Labor, Democracy, and Freedom Bloc, and worked for the founding of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the consequent heir of the closed DTP, and served as the co-chair of the HDP responsible for Law and Human Rights. In December 2016, she was arrested on charges of “terrorism” under a purge against the HDP, and in 2018, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “leading a terrorist organization”.
In her essay in an edited volume of over 20 Kurdish women politicians’ personal accounts of their lives and political struggles titled the Color Purple of Kurdish Politics, all written from prison, Tuğluk, starts her life narrative with her brother’s involvement in the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s and his death at the hands of Turkish fascists in the infamous Diyarbakır prisons. Her brother, Aytekin Tuğluk, was one of the early revolutionaries of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), who became active in organizing in the 1970s together with Sakine Cansız, one of the founders of the PKK, and an early pioneer of the Kurdish women’s self-organizing within the PKK. Aytekin Tuğluk and Cansız were imprisoned together in Diyarbakır Prisons prior to the PKK starting an anti-colonial guerilla movement in the early 1980s. In Diyarbakır, various forms of inhuman physical torture, and the racist pyschological torture in the form of forced narrations of Turkish identity, and the recitals of Turkish military songs to convert Kurdish prisoners into Turkishness was followed by the armament of the Turkish fascists in prison by the military personnel to kill the Kurdish political prisoners who resisted confessing to the state. Following a series of tortures during his detainment and imprisonment, and his determined resistance against the violent dehumanization of Kurdish prisoners, Aytekin Tuğluk was shot and taken to intensive care, and eventually died at the hospital due to a nurse removing his respiratory device.
Instead of separating “legal” vs. “illegal” resistance, or political prisoners “deserving” and “not deserving” freedom, our focus should rather be on the role of the prison system in the criminalization and punishment of anti-systemic movements.
His death shook the Tuğluk family, who following this death and the ongoing harassment of their home by the fascists in Elazığ now strengthened by the Turkish military junta regime of the 1980, moved to Istanbul. Forms of torture in Diyarbakır prison continued following Tuğluk’s death. The cooperation between the prison guards, military, and hospital in the killing of Aytekin Tuğluk revealed the intimate connections between different state institutions in the continuing colonial violence against the Kurdish political prisoners. These prisoners had become politically active in the first place to dismantle the colonial rule over Kurdistan and they perceived captivity and violent treatment in prisons as a continuation of a broader colonial violence against the Kurdish populations. They formulated various forms of resistance against prison conditions in the form of hunger strikes and self-immolations, and attempts to escape the prison throughout the 1980s as a central aspect of a larger anti-colonial struggle. In this sense both the criminalization of anti-colonial freedom movements and the imprisonment and dehumanization of those who resisted colonial practices of the Turkish state, as well as the prison struggles, as a form of resistance against dehumanizing captivity and larger processes of colonial governance of Kurdish populations have a long history.
Within this context, it is no coincidence that Aysel Tuğluk goes to law school in order to join the struggles of the Kurdish lawyers fighting for the rights of Kurdish prisoners, who were suffering another wave of violence, criminalization, and incarceration at the hands of the Turkish state in the 1990s. As the PKK’s guerilla warfare proved to be a strong form of resistance against Turkish colonialism, which had intensified its violent rule against the Kurdish populations since the 1980 military junta, and the state of exception declared against the whole region in 1987, the Turkish state criminalized not only the PKK sympathizers, but the local villagers in Kurdistan, who were blamed for providing food for the guerilla. As the Turkish military and specially trained intelligence units turned the villages of Kurdistan into open air prisons where means of surveillance and torture reached a new peak followed by a complete annihilation of the villages and forced displacement of the Kurdish people in millions, those who were detained and arrested faced another wave of dehumanizing captivity and torture in Turkish colonial prisons.
Tuğluk became involved in the Human Rights Association and worked in the formation of the Association for Social Law Studies (TOHAV), which aimed to provide physical and psychological medical support for victims of torture and to follow their law suits. In 1999, when the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, was abducted in Kenya by an international clandestine operation and was handed to the Turkish state, Tuğluk was one of the first attorneys who applied to take his case and served Öcalan’s defense team until 2005. In her life narrative, she discusses the deep influence that her conversations with Öcalan had on her understanding of the need for women’s freedom and women’s self organizing for a free society. As the Turkish state has criminalized the Kurdish freedom movement’s ideas of anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal democratic free society, it is no coincidence that Öcalan and Tuğluk, and thousands of others struggling to create democratic spaces for women, Kurds, and all other oppressed groups alike, continue to be captive in Turkish colonial prisons.
Given the historical context of the prison system as a tool of oppression of the colonized populations and suppression of their resistance, although pragmatically tempting at times, an overemphasis on “legality” of activities and organizational affiliation of some political prisoners unintendedly reproduces state-defined bounds of “legal” politics and recognizes the criminalization of others who are involved in state-defined “illegal” politics. Instead of separating “legal” vs. “illegal” resistance, or political prisoners “deserving” and “not deserving” freedom, our focus should rather be on the role of the prison system in the criminalization and punishment of anti-systemic movements. In her several attempts to escape the various Turkish prisons throughout the 1980s, Sakine Cansız, expresses the illegitimacy of the “legal” system that was used to colonize Kurdish populations and criminalize their dissent. Although the concept of “abolition” was not used explicitly in her biographic work, a prison abolitionist politics, developed specifically around political captivity, and articulated more broadly around the illegitimacy of a colonial legal system, has been carried out for decades by the Kurdish freedom movement.
At the present moment, Aysel Tuğluk is sick, a sickness triggered by the trauma she has experienced at her mother’s funeral, where a racist mob protected by the Turkish police attacked the burial site saying “Bodies of martyrs lie here. We won’t let Kurds, Alevis, Armenians be buried here. If you do so, we will take them out and tear them apart.” Tuğluk’s family had to exhume mother Tuğluk’s body and bring her to their hometown of Dersim, where Aysel Tuğluk was not allowed to go for the funeral. This racist mob attack is not an isolated event as the Armenians, Kurds, and Alevis, have faced genocidal policies at the hands of the Turkish state and the accompanying fascist mobs, who have massacred these populations with police and military protection. The attack, followed by the most recent racist attacks continue to trigger the trauma set by a century of colonial violence against the Kurds and has impacted Tuğluk’s health in prison. It is urgent that she is released immediately so that she can receive proper medical treatment out of prison together with hundreds of sick prisoners whose condition is critical. It is also time for those who got glimpses of the criminalization of dissent as a way of reproducing oppressive governments, and the violent prison system used to silence and annihilate the politically active in the recent years of Turkey, start to see the longer colonial history of prisons used as tools of oppression against the Kurdish populations and work towards a prison abolitionist politics.