Leyla Zana: Writing from a Prison Cell

“I want to tell you about a suffering land and the concerted efforts of the ruling circles to deny the very existence of its people. I am talking of the struggles of those who are standing up to oppression and working for peace, freedom, brotherhood, democracy and labour rights. In other words, I am referring to the reality of my country, of its peoples and the state of affairs unfolding in it… If it needs to be stated again, I belong to those who seek peace…” – Leyla Zana, writing in 1998 from her prison cell to the wife of the President of Turkey.

 

Leyla Zana is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s discrimination against the Kurdish minority. She has been fighting for Kurdish human rights for many years and has been imprisoned for 10 years, a harsh price for her peaceful activism.

 

Leyla Zana is born in 1961 in a Kurdish village near the town of Silvan in eastern Turkey. When she is fourteen her father marries her to his cousin, Mehdi Zana, a political activist. In 1976 the couple moves to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, where Mehdi is elected mayor a year later. Arrested during the 1980 military coup d’état, he is sentenced to thirty years in prison.

 

Defending the rights of her husband as a political prisoner, Zana becomes an activist, and organizes other women visiting their jailed family members. Meanwhile, she studies on her own, obtains a high school diploma, and engages in journalistic and human rights activism, which leads to her arrest in 1988.

 

In 1991 she become the first Kurdish woman elected to the parliament, and the first to break the ban on speaking in Kurdish in the parliament. She advocates in her native tongue for fraternal relations between Kurdish and Turkish peoples.

 

Declared a  ‘separatist’ and member of an illegal party, she is tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in jail in 1994. Since her imprisonment she received several peace awards, including the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Despite the Turkish authorities’ violent political actions against Kurds in Turkey and Europe, and her own suffering and losses during her ten years of imprisonment, Leyla Zana remains a strong voice for peace and democracy and claims that these can only be obtained through a non-violent political solution. She urges Turkey to open talks with the Kurds in which representatives of the PKK should be included.

 

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