Connor Hayes | 17 April 2019

On Tuesday, 16 April 2019, the 122nd annual Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), which ran from 15-17 April and represents 37 trade unions and more than 540,000 people across Scotland, adopted a motion declaring their solidarity with the people around the world who have declared indefinite hunger strike to the protest the unlawful conditions of isolation imposed on imprisoned Kurdish people’s leader Abdullah Ocalan. The emergency motion was proposed by Kathleen Kennedy of the Aberdeen Trade Union Council and Stephen Smellie, Depute Convenor of Unison union and co-convenor of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, and was adopted in a unanimous vote by the congress.

There are currently more than 7,000 people throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America who have declared indefinite hunger strike to protest the harsh isolation conditions of Ocalan and other political prisoners in Turkey. This wave of hunger strikes was started on 7 November 2019 by Leyla Guven, a then-imprisoned MP from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. 16 April marked Ms Guven’s 160th day of continuous, indefinite hunger strike, and her situation is critical; she is unable to walk, experiences sensitivity to light, smell, and touch, fluctuating blood pressure that cause her to faint, and is often in too much pain to sleep. There are also a number of hunger strikers in the UK; Imam Sis in Newport, Wales, has been on hunger strike since 17 December 2018, and three members of the community in London, Nahide Zengin, Mehmet Sait Yılmaz and Ali Poyraz, declared an indefinite hunger strike on 14 March 2019.

Abdullah Ocalan has been held in the high-security closed prison on Imrali Island in Turkey since 1999, when he was abducted from Nairobi, Kenya in an international operation involving the intelligence agencies of the USA, Israel, and Turkey. He has been forbidden from contacting a lawyer since 2011, and has only been granted two visits since April 2015. Both of these visits have been with his brother Mehmet, and were only granted after the declaration of hunger strikes; once in September 2016, after which the hunger strikes were stopped, and again earlier this year on 12 January 2019. After the most recent visit, the hunger strikers refused to end their strike, declaring “2 visits in 4 years does not constitute an end to the isolation,” and maintain their demand for Ocalan to be allowed regular visits with his lawyers and family, as is his legal right. Ending the isolation of Ocalan is widely seen as the first step towards re-starting the process to realise a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish question.

The emergency motion in support of the hunger strikers adopted by the congress declares, “This isolation contravenes European Human Rights legislation, the UN Mandela Rules for the minimum of political prisoners, and Turkey’s own constitution.” The STUC called on the general council of the congress to demand that the Council of Europe “take action against Turkey,” write to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) demanding that it “fulfil its role and put pressure on Turkey to respond to this basic human rights need,” write to the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt demanding the UK government put pressure on Turkey, and “inform trade union members about the hunger strikes and their demand, and engage in supportive actions.”

In his speech, Stephen Smellie described the plight of the Kurdish people, who face severe repression by the Turkish state, to the extent that even Kurdish culture and the Kurdish identity have been criminalised. He further detailed the extensive work done by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Kurdish freedom movement to raise awareness about the Kurdish people amongst the people of the region and around the world. Furthermore, he stressed that the Kurdish freedom movement is based on the notion of a free and democratic society for all peoples. The primary principles of the Kurdish freedom movement, which have been extensively articulated by Ocalan, are grassroots democracy in the form of self-organised local assemblies, ecology, and the liberation of women.

The ideology of Ocalan serves as the foundation for the democratic autonomy project in the Northern and Eastern region of Syria known as Rojava. The self-organised People’s Defence Units (YPG), and the autonomous women-only Women’s Defence Units (YPJ) of Rojava have been the primary force fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS) on the ground, declaring victory against the IS caliphate on 21 March 2019, the day of Kurdish New Years, or ‘Newroz.’ Throughout the decades-long conflict between the Kurdish people and the Turkish state, Ocalan has been the most vocal voice calling for peace, initiating the first unilateral cease-fire on behalf of the PKK in 1993, and engaging in talks towards a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question with representatives of the Turkish government from his position in Imrali Island Prison from 2013 to 2015.

The STUC also adopted motion 104 entitled “Stop criminalising the Kurdish community.” The motion was proposed by Mike Arnott, secretary of the Dundee Trades Union Council, and Stephen Smellie of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, and was also adopted by the congress in a unanimous vote. The motion concerns the series of raids and arrests members of the Kurdish community in Scotland have suffered at the hands of Police Scotland. Since 2016, police officers have conducted a series of early-morning raids on the homes of members of the Kurdish community in Scotland, broken in to the Kurdish community centre in Edinburgh, and arrested numerous individuals for their alleged support of the PKK, which is classified as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by the governments of the UK and Turkey. Evidence for this alleged support is garnered from flags and badges of the YPG/YPJ, primary groups in the international Syrian Democratic Forces coalition fighting IS, and scarves featuring the Kurdish colours red, green, and yellow, all of which have been confiscated by police during their raids.

The motion stated, “Expressions of Kurdish identity have been cited as evidence of support for… terrorism. By this reasoning, the whole Kurdish community is at risk of being criminalised.” The motion also notes that the “European Union Court of Justice recently ruled that the continued listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation was wrong,” while the UK government still supports and sells weapons to the government of Turkey. The motion called for the congress to reiterate their “long-standing support for, and solidarity with, the Kurdish community in Scotland,” condemn “the raids and harassment they are suffering at the hands of Police Scotland,” and to call on “the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice to ensure that these actions cease forthwith and make a public commitment to the human rights and general well-being of our Kurdish community.”

In his speech presenting motion 104 to the congress, Mike Arnott stated that Kurds have lived peacefully in Scotland for more than 30 years and have made outstanding contributions to the local community. Furthermore, he said that it is unacceptable they are now beginning to face similar treatment by police in Scotland as they do in Turkey, where journalists, trade unionists, and opposition politicians are jailed, and academics are fired for speaking out against state violence. Arnott demanded that these actions stop, and that the Scottish ministers make every effort to ensure that the Kurdish community feels welcome in Scotland, and that they are free to criticise the government of Turkey, the UK, or any government they choose.

The group Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan (SSK) also had an exhibition booth at the congress, where representatives from the group and members of the Kurdish community in Scotland spoke with trade unionists, politicians, and members of various social movements about the plight of the Kurdish people, the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, and the principles of the Kurdish freedom movement. SSK received positive feedback and support from a number of notable individuals, including Chris Stephens, an MP of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who has raised the issue of the Kurdish people and the hunger strikers in the UK parliament on numerous occasions. Members of SSK also had the chance to speak with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, who vowed to make inquiries regarding where orders for these raids were coming from and to take action to make sure the criminalisation of the Kurdish community in Scotland ceases for good.