As election season draws to a close, political candidates across the U.S. rush to share their campaign platforms and policy proposals with as many voters as possible. While these candidates may spend sleepless nights worrying about their chances on Nov. 4 or their abilities to perform once elected, few have fears that their opinions or policy statements will lead to arrest. American politicians are confident that their actions in government, short of corruption, sex abuse or murder, won’t land them in jail.
If only elected officials around the world had the same freedom.
In Turkey, Leyla Zana continues her ninth year in the Ankara Central Closed Prison. The first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish Parliament, Zana was convicted in 1994 of belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party, an illegal armed opposition group.
In reality, the proceedings against Zana stemmed from her commitment to human rights and a peaceful and democratic resolution to the violent conflict between Turkey’s administration and its Kurdish minority. Turkish authorities have traditionally treated Kurdish ethno-lingual diversity as a threat to national unity and prior to August 2002, Turkey outlawed the use of Kurdish in broadcast media and education. The charges against Zana were prompted by an incident at Zana’s inauguration in 1991. After taking the traditional Turkish loyalty oath, Zana added in Kurdish, “I shall struggle so that Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live peacefully together in a democratic framework.” Fellow Members of Parliament broke out in calls of treason and separatism. Protected by parliamentary immunity, Zana and three of her Kurdish colleagues were arrested not then, but three years later, when parliament decided to close down their political party and lift their immunity.
Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights have both characterized the trial that followed as unfair and partial. A great deal of the prosecution’s evidence came from individuals facing prosecution themselves or people who later retracted their statements claiming they were extracted during torture. The defense was not allowed to call prosecution witnesses or test the prosecution’s evidence.
The right to vote, so prized by Americans, is only truly valuable when paired with the right to free expression. When political candidates speak continually under the threat or arrest from the federal government, they represent the views of the ruling parties, rather than those of the people. If Turkey truly wants to fulfill the promises of democracy it has made to its citizens, it must repair the wrongs it has done to Leyla Zana and her colleagues.
Over the past year, the human rights situation in Turkey has improved, mainly in response to pressure from the European community as the nation attempts to join the European Union. Parliament granted limited amnesties for PKK insurgents and supporters, lifted a number of the restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and abolished the death penalty in times of war. In March of this year, Leyla Zana was granted a new trial, which is currently underway.
Yet, Zana and her three colleagues still sit in prison. After you vote on election day, go to amnestyusa.org and write or e-mail the Turkish prime minister, urging him to release Ms. Zana immediately and unconditionally. After exercising your electoral rights, place a vote for the human rights of Leyla Zana and her fellow prisoners of conscience in Turkey.
Pamela Boykoff is a senior in Branford College. She is the president of the Yale chapter of Amnesty International.