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Kurdish still a ‘mountain language’ in Turkey’s prisons

Today's Zaman 22 June 2008, Sunday

 It was 1985, when playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, along with the late Arthur Miller, visited Turkey on behalf of International PEN to investigate the situation of writers in Turkey, a visit that inspired him to write his play "Mountain Language" three years later

"One of the things I learnt while I was there was about the real plight of the Kurds: quite simply that they're not really allowed to exist at all and certainly not allowed to speak their language," Pinter said in an interview at the time, after his play was performed for the first time at the Royal National Theatre in London in October 1988. He was responding to a question on why he wrote the play.Prisoners in Erzurum Special Type Prison are not allowed to use Kurdish on the telephone.

"For example, there's a publisher who wrote a history of the Kurds and was sent to prison for 36 years for simply writing a history of the Kurds," he went on saying, in an apparent reference to the then-situation of prominent sociologist İsmail Beşikçi.

"… The springboard, in answer to your question, was the Kurds, but this play is not about the Turks and the Kurds. I mean, throughout history, many languages have been banned -- the Irish have suffered, the Welsh have suffered and Urdu and the Estonians' language banned; the Basques' language was banned, you know, at various times," Pinter said.

Taking into consideration the recent adoption of a bill by the Turkish Parliament that allows full-time state broadcasts in Kurdish, one might be tempted to file Pinter's remarks away as "ancient" quotes, belonging to the time when Turkey had not introduced reforms expanding freedoms and rights in line with its European Union membership process.

However, the reality argues otherwise: Hundreds of complaints have been filed by prisoners, particularly since early 2007, to several chambers of the Human Rights Association (İHD) regarding a ban on the use of Kurdish in telephone conversations with their families.

Article 88 entry (p)

Sevim Salihoğlu, secretary-general of the Ankara-based İHD, told Sunday's Zaman that both the headquarters in the capital and İHD chambers in several cities have been receiving a lot of complaints on the issue of Kurdish language usage in prisons since early 2007.

"Sometimes, a complaint letter is signed by 10 prisoners. I can surely say that we have received complaints from more than 200 separate prisoners," Salihoğlu added. The relatively high number of formal complaints the İHD has received suggests the problem affects many more.

The ongoing problems are related to a Justice Ministry guideline outlining rules for "Management of Criminal Execution Institutions and Execution of Penalties and Security Precautions."

Article 88 of the guideline outlines "the right to talk on the telephone." Entry (p) of the same article says: "Speaking takes place in Turkish. However, if the convict doesn't know Turkish or if it is determined that his/her relative -- via examination in location of the relative with whom the convict notified [authorities] he will talk to -- doesn't know Turkish, the talk is allowed and recorded. If it is understood as a result of examination of the records that talk is used for activities which have the possibility to constitute a crime, then the convict is not allowed to talk in any other language than Turkish with the same relative."

Lawyer Ömer Halefoğlu, member of administration board of the İHD Diyarbakır branch, shared similar complaints by three prisoners with Sunday's Zaman. "I've been convicted at Erzurum Special Type Prison. Around since one year. I'm not allowed to have telephone talk in Kurdish which is my mother tongue with my family. My mother and my aunty cannot speak at all Turkish. That's why, I can't talk to them since one year. I'm demanding legal assistance from you in order to be able to talk in my mother tongue," Fettah Karakaş, one of those prisoners, wrote in broken Turkish in a letter dated April 15, 2008.

Regarding three complaints, one from 2007, the İHD Diyarbakır office sent letters to the Justice Ministry, Parliament's Human Rights Commission and the Prime Ministry's Human Rights Presidency (BİHB). So far, only Human Rights Commission Chairman Zafer Üskül, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), has responded. He basically and briefly referred the İHD to "The Guideline Concerning Management of Criminal Execution Institutions and Execution of Penalties and Security Precautions."

"In a response letter to Üskül, we will list problems stemming from the guideline itself. For example; we will explain the arbitrary practices of security forces during examination of the relative with whom the convict notified authorities he will talk to, and we will explain that the final report after these examinations does not always reflect the truth," Halefoğlu told Sunday's Zaman in a brief telephone interview.

Sources from the Justice Ministry also referred to the entry (p) of Article 88 of the same guideline, when approached by Sunday's Zaman.

"The minister has asked for detailed information regarding news reports on the issue, and it is still being assessed whether there is a trouble in the implementation of the guideline," the sources, who requested anonymity, told Sunday's Zaman, referring to recent Turkish media reports on the issue.

As Pinter's 20-minute-long play begins, the audience sees a group of women waiting all day through snowfall to visit their imprisoned husbands and sons. As Salihoğlu explained, almost all of those relatives subject to grievances due to the guideline are old people who cannot speak Turkish at all. And the majority of those old people are female, needless to say because they lack even a primary school education. The ministry's final evaluation and the response to hundreds of complaints will give a clue on whether Kurdish is still a "mountain language" in Turkey.

22 June 2008, Sunday
EMİNE KART  ANKARA

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