Detainee in Turkish prison barred from speaking Kurdish with mother

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ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – With a growing government crackdown on civil society, the Kurdish movement, and larger political opposition ongoing for the past several years now, old practices of repressing the Kurdish language in Turkey appears to have made a comeback.

The latest example revealed by a political detainee recently released from an Istanbul prison bears a stark resemblance to bans on Kurdish for much of twentieth-century Turkey, harshly imposed particularly in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup.

Asking not to be named for safety reasons and an ongoing case against her, the former detainee spoke to Kurdistan 24 over the phone Tuesday and said that before her release from Istanbul’s Bakirkoy Women’s Prison earlier this year, she witnessed how jail authorities intimidated a fellow inmate for speaking Kurdish.

“If you do not speak Turkish, you will be deprived of your right to a phone call. We have to understand what you are talking. Not Kurdish, speak Turkish,” officials told the second detainee who is also now freed but with charges against her standing.

Prosecutors were accusing both of membership in the anti-government movement of the Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, once an ally to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration which holds the US-exiled preacher and his followers of mounting the botched military coup in 2016.

Both women remained imprisoned pending trial for almost a year.

“We will listen to your call next time, and if you speak Kurdish, we will cut it off,” the prison officials said, according to Kurdistan 24’s source who added they did not offer an alternative to their warning.

Political prisoners, numbering about 50,000 according to a report last week by the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have the right to a phone call twice a month for 10 minutes whereas criminals could place a call once a week.

The prisoner, a dismissed state employee, was talking to her mother in Diyarbakir who spoke no other language than her native Kurdish. She was hiding from her mother that she was in prison, telling her instead that she was attending professional training abroad and she would be back soon.

Kurdistan 24’s source said that there were people of other nationalities, such as Russians and Africans, kept at the prison and they were not barred from speaking in their native tongues over the phone.

A woman holds a sign that reads
A woman holds a sign that reads "Don't ban my language" during a peace day rally in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, Sep. 1, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)

“I did my research, and none of them ever received a similar warning,” she said.

Laws amended in 2009 allow prisoners to speak Kurdish on the phone, while authorities are responsible for translating recorded content later if need be.

It was the dawn of more hopeful times.

The then Prime Minister Erdogan’s government was still aspiring to accede the country to the European Union (EU), a democratization process was gaining pace and talks, albeit in secret initially, to resolve the “Kurdish question” peacefully with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels were already initiated.

The environment of pessimism for a more democratic Turkey, unexpectedly fostered by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), applauded by the anti-military liberal intelligentsia and the Kurdish population, would prevail for several years to come.

A sudden collapse of the 2013-2015 peace negotiations and ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK, the failed military coup three years ago, the Syrian civil war’s repercussions inside Turkey and deteriorating ties with the US and other Western countries substantially reversed democratic advancements made.

Conditions have worsened to the point of a recriminalizing of the Kurdish language, though Ankara ostensibly denies any such policy.

Since the failed coup, authorities have shuttered scores of Kurdish language institutes, dailies, magazines, websites, TVs, including a cartoon channel for kids that was later allowed to re-air, and other media networks.

Although the state TV and news agency operate in Kurdish thanks to earlier reforms, they today act as mere channels of distributing state-approved information targeting the Kurdish population left with little alternatives.

Trustees appointed from Ankara to posts of elected HDP mayors in scores of Kurdish towns and cities have also at times removed Kurdish signboards, placards, statues, changed park names, and ordered the closure of kindergartens teaching in the mother tongue.

The detainee, herself a Turk, who disclosed what she witnessed at Istanbul prison likened the situation to the post-coup 1980s.

Back then, even visitors had to speak only in Turkish while seeing their jailed loved ones.

A well-known tragic case narrated in media, literature, and cinema was that of a leftist activist, Kamber Ates, serving time at Ankara’s infamous Mamak military prison during the early years of the junta.

His mother, Ipek, was visiting from the eastern Sivas Province.

The son was condemned to death, a punishment that was commuted to a life sentence later.

She did not know a word of Turkish. She did not even know the family’s surname, as official last names were given by the state since the modern republic’s younger times in 1934.

Once at Mamak and having been tutored by her accompanying daughter on how to say a few words in Turkish, and what the surname was, the mother started conversing with the son in only one sentence.

She repeated the only Turkish phrase she knew over and over again during the visitation, no matter what her son behind bars was saying in response.

It was a question whose answer she could not understand: Kamber Ates, nasilsin?

“Kamber Ates, how are you?”


Editing by Karzan Sulaivany