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Harrowing stories from Turkey and Kurdistan

TSSA leader MANUEL CORTES reports on his visit to meet trade unionists and key activists struggling for Kurdish liberation

THERE were so many first-hand harrowing stories of human and workers’ rights abuses while representing the General Federation of Trade Unions on a recent delegation to Kurdistan.

We were united in asking the Turkish government to stop its systematic abuse of human and workers’ rights.

There was a broad range of people on the visit, including Ogmundur Jonasson, who is the former justice minister of Iceland, from showbiz British actor Maxine Peake and people from a number of different countries and backgrounds.

I addressed a packed press conference in Ankara and demanded that the country’s justice minister abide by his own laws and Turkey’s international obligations as a member of the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe.

I met our sister union BTS — and later representatives from KESK, the Turkish equivalent of our Trades Union Congress. They were extremely clear that trade union representatives are routinely harassed by the country’s security forces.

Many trade union leaders and key activists have been jailed and the Turkish government has gone as far as setting up a yellow union to undermine the efforts of our sisters and brothers to bargain collectively on behalf of their members.

Sadly, the worst treatment is reserved for the Kurdish minority of around 15 million people (that’s almost 20 per cent of the population). 

There are currently over 300 Kurdish political prisoners on hunger strike including several members of parliament. We met some of them, and they are sadly getting weaker by the day.

Just like Nelson Mandela, the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is serving his sentence in solidarity confinement on a prison island where he is one of only four inmates. He is regularly denied family visits and has had no access to his lawyers for over five years.

The hunger strikers are demanding that his isolation is broken as it breaks Turkey’s own laws and the European Convention of Human Rights which Turkey signed decades ago.

Ocalan will have to be released for there to be a lasting democratic settlement between Turkey and its Kurdish minority which respects their rights as currently their kids are even denied learning their mother tongue in school.

Our visit to Kurdistan itself was the most harrowing part. We met Leyla Guven, a member of parliament who has been on hunger strike for over 100 days and was recently released from jail but has continued her protest. 

I am extremely afraid that death may not be that far away for Guven. Given the seriousness of this situation, I contacted the leader of Labour’s Members of the European Parliament, Richard Corbett, and he is looking to raise this issue as a matter of urgency.

However, it would be good to see mainstream British media covering this issue in depth as soon as possible. Our trip is only getting coverage in the Kurdish and fringe media. 

I am extremely proud that last year our union’s conference endorsed a resolution demanding that the Turkish authorities uphold human and workers’ rights and seeking a democratic settlement with its Kurdish majority which must include Ocalan’s release.

You know this prompted a response from the Turkish ambassador in London whom I am very keen to meet having now had first-hand knowledge of what is going on. Hopefully, he will agree to see me.

I also met workplace representatives of our sister union BTS to discuss with them the proposed privatisation of their railways. Someone must have been having a demonic laugh as they have been told by their government that they want to follow the British model — don’t do it!

After the delegation’s visit I went straight to Strasbourg to report on our findings. At a 40,000-strong rally in support of Kurdish rights in Turkey and calling for the European Union to take action to end Ocalan’s imprisonment I warned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that if any hunger striker died their blood will be on his hands and we will never forgive or forget.

It’s time to end Ocalan’s isolation!

Manuel Cortes is general secretary of TSSA.

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