E-mailed Interview with Mr. Surreya Erstoy, Fulbright Coordinator in Turkey

Students What do you think would be the best future course for the Kurds in Turkey, or the Kurds in general, to pursue?
Mr. Erstoy

I think the Kurds of Turkey should stick to being citizens of this country and work through the democratic process.  The fact is that the Kurds are not concentrated in one particular area but are spread all over Turkey.  Kurds and Turks have lived under the same political entitiy for the last 1000 years.  There has been a lot of intermarriage and assimilation.  Many Kurds consider themselves as Turks.  This is not surprising:  Citizenship in Turkey is very much like being a citizen of the United States; once you are a citizen, there is no discrimination and whatever your ethnic background you have the same rights and obligations or problems.   So, even if your grandparents were of Italian/Dutch/German/Irish/Greek etc. origin, you are an American.  So it is in Turkey.  Being a Turkish citizen is inclusive and not exclusive.  Accordingly, Turkish citizens of Kurdish background have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the country.  However, some Turkish citizens of Kurdish background felt that the Turkish government in the past did not give them opportunities to learn and teach their own language(s) and culture and express themselves.  They felt oppressed.  This has changed in the last decade.  There is nothing stopping the publication of Kurdish newspapers, journals, books.  CD's in Kurdish are sold openly, concerts and movies of Kurdish artists are very popular.  The teaching of Kurdish is now permitted.  Regulations are being changed so that there will soon be radio and tv broadcasts in Kurdish.  However, it might be impossible to satisfy separatists with such rights.  It would seem that they will settle for nothing less than an independent state of their own and are ready to commit any atrocity to achieve this end.

I cannot speak for the Kurds living in Irak, Iran or Syria, as I do not have enough knowledge on them.  However, the way things are going in Irak, it seems as if the Kurds there are set for an independent state.  They might actually achieve this with US assistance.

Students What are your opinions on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?  (We heard Prime Minister Erdogan speak at Harvard during his visit to the US.)
Mr. Erstoy Erdogan is a smart and charismatic politician.  He obviously has strong leadership qualities.
Students Some claim that he does not have the power to release Zana.  Is this true?
Mr. Erstoy

Yes.  The judiciary in Turkey,  just like the United States, is independent of the government.  The prime minister cannot tell or order a judge what to do.  The only things Erdogan can legally do are either try to change the laws which caused Zana to be jailed or try to pass a general amnesty from which Zana can also benefit.  In either case he has to convince the parliament which is elected by the people in free elections every five years to agree to this.

Turkey is being denied admission to the European Union largely on account of democratic requirements that have not yet been met. 
Turkey is not being denied admission to the European Union on account of democratic or human rights requirements that have not been met.  That is just cited as an excuse.  The real reason for the denial is because Turkey is culturally and socially so different than the rest of Europe.  The Europeans do not want such "alien" people amongst them.  The fact that millions of Turks might migrate to Europe and settle there scares them out of their minds.  The second reason is because Turkey is so far behind economically than the European Union members.  Having big economic problems of their own, the Europeans do not want to deal with the immense problems this would create.  The third reason is that Turkey is simply too large a country both in area and population to digest easily in the European Union.


Students Do you feel that Turkey is fully democratic, and should be allowed admission immediately, or that ground still needs to be covered?
Mr. Erstoy All the nations and countries on this planet including Turkey need to cover more ground in being more democratic and more aware of human rights.  Turkey does need to cover more than some others.  This is a continuing struggle.  One must never be complacent and one must never drop the ball.
Students What are your opinions on Leyla Zana?  If you view her as a separatist or terrorist, please explain why. If you do not view her as such, please give us some insight as to why others might feel this way.
Mr. Erstoy

Leyla Zana was convicted not because of her beliefs or free speech issues but because of giving aid to a terrorist organization, the PKK.  30,000 people in Turkey, most of them innocent bystanders, and many of them Kurdish villlagers, lost their lives during the terrorist insurrection of the PKK.  The PKK murdered in cold blood and as a matter of policy hundreds of teachers, nurses, engineers, postmen etc. and children.  They burned and destroyed schools, hospitals, bridges and other public and private property and livestock.  The same way the United States is punishing those who helped Osama Ben Laden plan the attack on the twin towers, It was just that anyone who had  ties with such an organization should be punished. 

Humans have different perspectives and agendas.  For instance, to this day, in the Moslem world there seem to be millions of  fanatics who think that Osama Ben Laden is a hero and that the attack on the twin towers which killed thousands of innocent people was a wonderful thing.  The same with those people that think that a terrorist such as Abdullah Ocalan and his henchmen such as Leyla Zana are freedom fighters.    

Students Do you feel that Zana's trials were conducted justly?
Mr. Erstoy Yes.
Students Thank you again.
Mr. Erstoy Thank you.  Good luck on your project and congratulations.  Any other questions, feel free to write me.


E-mailed Interview with Kevin Semanick, Coordinator of Amnesty International Northeast Region

Students Do you feel that the situation for the Kurds in Turkey has improved as a result of Turkey's efforts to gain admission to the European Union, or do you feel that only on-paper reforms occurred?
Mr. Semanick

The results of Turkey’s attempt to gain admission into the European Union have yielded mixed benefits. Certainly any reforms are a step in the right direction. For example they have lifted certain restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in certain public forums.

The biggest problem with these reforms is that they are only a baby step, which though necessary is slow-moving. The Kurdish people still don’t enjoy the full freedoms of culture and language that all world citizens should receive. When the government unrestricted Kurdish language on television it was only for a limited amount of time each week.

Leyla Zana’s trial is a crucial example of this baby step towards respecting human rights. She was arrested for her peaceful statement in the Kurdish language that “the Kurdish and Turkish people live peacefully together in a democratic framework.” An unconditional release would display a true respect for human rights. Instead Turkey has taken a baby step, albeit an important one. It has granted a retrial of the Leyla Zana case that was first fraught with many problems. However despite the retrial, there are again many problems with it, including the many discontinuities spanning a full year and the fact that she has not been released while being retried.

Students Do you feel that peaceful coexistence between the Kurds and Turks in Turkey is possible, or do you support the creation of a separate Kurdistan?
Mr. Semanick As a member of Amnesty International, I take no position on the creation of a separate state for the Kurdish people. But I truly do feel it is possible for the Turks and Kurds to live peacefully together. As I previously quoted Leyla Zana’s acceptance speech prior to her arrest, “I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish people may live peacefully together in a democratic framework.”
It is people like Leyla Zana that truly believe the two groups can live together peacefully in Turkey. For such peace to exist, it is important that both sides respect the others human rights. Turkey’s potential to join the European Union would also have an immense effect of cleaning up the human rights’ abuses and slowly begin to forge a better relationship between the Kurdish and Turkish people.
Students What do you think of Prime Minister Erdogan? Some say that he doesn't have the power to release Zana. Do you believe that this is true
Mr. Semanick Often politics can be a confusing web. In the last four years, there have been three Prime Ministers in Turkey. The world has repeatedly appealed to these men to free Leyla Zana on the basis of respecting human rights. Some results have been achieved, including a medically-based release offer and the retrial that begun last year. The Prime Minister certainly does hold the power to unconditionally release Leyla Zana, in my opinion. However, the issue has grown to epic proportions and it seems to have become a political issue, rather than one of respecting human rights. Again I am hoping that the European Union will greatly influence even broader reform for the people of Turkey.
Students What do you think will be the solution to this conflict? What steps need to be taken?
Mr. Semanick

This March, Leyla Zana marked the 10th year of her arrest. She has forced the issue of the Kurdish people in Turkey to be a world issue. She may finish out the rest of her sentence (five more years) without a fair retrial and without a conditional release. Fortunately, her imprisonment will important in the process of displaying human rights abuses in Turkey.

One necessary step to help Leyla Zana and ending human rights abuses in Turkey is to continue peacefully informing the Turkish government that it is not acceptable. The persistent letter-writing and demonstrating on behalf of Leyla Zana must continue to show the Turkish leaders that this is an issue that can not be evaded, and more importantly an issue the world takes seriously.

Students Have you ever met Mrs. Leyla Zana, or her husband, Mehdi Zana? If you have, what do you think of them; what is remarkable about them?
Mr. Semanick

Leyla Zana wrote a letter to those working on her behalf. It was a beautiful letter, full of great imagery that thanked us for our support, as well as explaining her situation. She has also published a book, Writings from Prison, which has helped many to gain insight. I am also aware that the Amnesty International campaigns on her behalf are being forwarded to her from her friends and family.

Though I never met Leyla, I did have the pleasure of spending several days with her husband, Mehdi Zana. In November of 2003, Mehdi completed a tour of the Northeastern American states, starting in Rhode Island and finishing in Washington D.C. While in the metro New York Area, I was able to attend two of his talks. Like Leyla, he was imprisoned for too many years because of his freedom of speech. He explained gruesome stories of torture and other human rights abuses. Though sad, it was moving and inspirational. It helps people remember the reasons for stopping human rights’ abuses.

Along his speaking tour, I was privileged to escort him to several different places, including an evening out at a restaurant. Two things struck me as remarkable as I ate with him. First, among the Kurdish community he is magnetic. Everyone is drawn to this man because of his firm desire to have the Kurdish people respected in Turkey.

His amiable, affable nature struck me as most remarkable. Despite his circumstances of torture and pain, with his wife in jail, the man always keeps smiling. Even though his life is filled with constant struggles and discrimination, the man attempts to live a happy life.

Students What have you done in your efforts to free Leyla Zana?
Mr. Semanick

I have done every peaceful measure to help free Leyla Zana, which is emblematic of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Every time I do something on behalf of Leyla Zana, I am confident that I am also addressing the human rights’ problems for all Kurdish people in Turkey.

I have helped stage two consulate demonstrations on behalf of Leyla Zana. They were real interesting because through the windows it was observable that those in the consulate were aware of our determination. While at the demonstrations we also attempted to deliver cards and over 10,000 signatures unsuccessfully. One attempt led to witnessing our card being thrown in the trash.

Our biggest action for Leyla Zana had to be hosting the tour of Mehdi Zana. A local Amnesty International group in Rhode Island was instrumental in planning the entire tour and hosting him in the New England Area. I helped with the New York/New Jersey leg of the tour, and I said it was a beneficial experience for me, as well as in our attempt to help free Leyla Zana.

Our other actions on her behalf have been much smaller, such as forms of letter-writing. We’ve done everything from email blitzes to fax blitzes to holiday card writing. Our actions have also included traditional postal mail and the collection of over 10,000 signatures on behalf of Leyla Zana. There is even a web petition that collected some 300 signatures.

I also helped staged a coffeehouse for Leyla Zana that offered information about her case, as well as a chance to ask for her immediate release. I know that many other groups have done coffeehouses as well. Another popular event for many adult groups is an annual concert to raise awareness for Leyla Zana.

We hope to possibly tie all of these events together in the form of a scrapbook. We’ve collected many pictures over the last few years. It would be a nice way to inspire people, while still displaying our support for Leyla Zana.

Students While we understand that you firmly support Leyla Zana and her colleagues, do you think that the Turkish government should be rightly afraid of the problems Leyla Zana might cause in terms of the separation of the Turkish country? Why?
Mr. Semanick As a member of Amnesty International, I do firmly support Leyla Zana and her right to freedom of expression. No one should be subject to imprisonment because of their peaceful statements about living together democratically. The Turkish country should embrace both Turkish and Kurdish people and respect everyone’s human rights. It is their best chance to live in a peaceful society.