İmam Sis, a Kurdish resident of Newport, Wales on Tuesday reached day 100 of an indefinite hunger strike, widely believed to be the longest hunger strike in British history for over 100 years. He is one of hundreds of Kurds around the world who have joined Leyla Güven, a democratically elected MP for the pro-Kurdish left wing HDP party in the Turkish Parliament who began a hunger strike on November 7 2018 and last month was made an honorary citizen of Paris. Three new indefinite hunger strikes have recently started in London.
The hunger strikers demands are that the Turkish government allow Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, jailed (since 1999, access to his lawyers (denied since 2011) and to his family (only one short visit since 2016). They also demand that the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture re-open its investigation into the prison on İmralı Island, where Öcalan is being held.
Last week, the plight of İmam Sis and other Kurdish hunger strikers were debated in the Welsh Senedd, with it becoming the first parliament in the world to condemn Turkey and vote for solidarity with the hunger strike. This mandated the Senedd to send a letter to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in line with the hunger strikers’ demands. The motion was tabled by Plaid Cymru. The Welsh Government cabinet (with the exception of Lee Waters AM) abstained from the free vote but the motion passed thanks to the votes of Labour backbenchers. Conservative AMs spoke against and opposed the motion.
A letter signed by trade union leaders, campaigners and politicians including Adam Pric,Plaid Cymru leader, Lord Peter Hain (former Secretary of State for Wales), Mark Serwotka,TUC president,, and poet Benjamin Zephaniah stated, “Leyla Güven, a democratically elected Kurdish MP to the Turkish parliament, has been on hunger strike for over 130 days and is nearing death. Her hunger strike calls for an end to the isolation of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) has been held mostly in solitary confinement by Turkey since 1999.
“Over 300 Kurds are now on hunger strike in Turkish prisons, Kurdistan, Europe and North America. In Strasbourg, 14 Kurds have been on indefinite hunger strike since 17 December to pressure the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to fulfil its duties and pay a visit to check on the situation of Öcalan. In Newport, Wales, İmam Sis has been on hunger strike since 17 December in Newport.
“The international campaign for freedom for Öcalan and reconvening peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK has been supported by the TUC, Jeremy Corbyn, Plaid Cymru, Mairead Maguire, Wole Soyinka, Desmond Tutu, Gerry Adams, Noam Chomsky, Professor Angela Davis and many others. Many believe that freedom for Öcalan is a precondition for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey.
We call upon the UK government to press the Turkish government to end the isolation of Öcalan.”
İmam Sis said, “We are not doing this hunger strike to die. I don’t want to do this hunger strike. All the hunger strikers take B complex vitamins. This is not a death fast. We love life, we love a free life but Kurdish people have no free life in the world. The Kurds as a people have no expression, no space. The Turkish State is trying to break our will. We will not accept this. Kurdish people always say we want a free life, we have no other choice. The freedom of Ocalan represents the freedom of the Kurdish people. We are ready to die for our freedom because what we have now, this is not life.”
“This culture, this language I have, it came from history. As Kurdish people we need a community, a society, a nation, we can’t stand back while our history, our language, everything is destroyed. I have to fight for it. While the Kurdish people are denied, are subjected to massacres, we have to resist. When you live in slavery, when you can’t express your identity, that is no life. We cannot live in slavery. We love life so much we will die for it. When I talk about life, that should be in a free, democratic and equal society. This life that we have is like a prison.”
Mark Campbell, Co-Chair of Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign who has often been staying with İmam Sis in Newport said, “He is only taking watery sugary salt with B Vitamins in the morning. He stopped passing any faeces over a month ago. Nothing is coming out anymore. He, better than I, will be able to tell you how his body has been eating his fat and the science behind the slow and gradual decline of the body until death.
“İmam, I honestly believe, is prepared to die for this cause and those closest to him believe the same. I don't say that lightly or glibly and obviously no one would want him to do that. The hunger strike is now entering a very critical stage and people can and will die if the central demand of the protest is not met, that is that regular family and legal visits are restarted and facilitated to Abdullah Öcalan on the prison island of Imrali. Öcalan has had no access or communication with a lawyer since 2011 and is forbidden from contacting the outside world in any way. This condition of aggravated isolation violates not only International Law and the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey is obliged to follow as a member of the Council of Europe but also Turkey's own constitution and legal code.
“The aims of the hunger strikers are to break the isolation of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan so as to break the impasse on the political side of the Kurdish Question.”
Leanne Wood AM, speaking during the debate in the Welsh Assembly said, “A Welsh citizen who has become a friend is on hunger strike in Newport and I was reminded of İmam Sis's commitment to building strong and diverse communities when a Facebook memory photograph popped up this week from two years ago when İmam and I marched together in Cardiff against racism. He was prepared to stand up for communities then and he has on many other occasions. Now, it's our turn to stand with him and his fellow Kurds and their struggle.”
Labour's Mick Antoniw AM slammed the Tories’ stance during the debate saying,
“It's the same tactic the Tories used to support apartheid in South Africa, the same Tories who wore 'Hang Mandela' t-shirts, only to faun over Mandela decades later despite doing nothing to secure his release... The plight of the Kurdish people is one we should be ashamed of, because over decades … our governments have been complicit in turning a blind eye to the abuse of basic human rights, just as we have of the Palestinians.”
Responding to the vote, İmam Sis paid tribute to Plaid assembly members Leanne Wood, Delyth Jewell and Bethan Sayed, and Labour's Jenny Rathbone saying,
“I love my comrades in Wales! While I listened to our comrades, Leanne, Delyth and Bethan in the Senedd defending our struggle I felt enormous pride by how much they really love and value us. Zor spas hevalno, dear friends thank you. This is also your victory friends, you who have shown true solidarity from the beginning until now. You know who you are but to Plaid Cymru, Jenny Rathbone and Labour supporters, Newport and Cardiff solidarity friends, my comrades and to Wales, thank you! Cymru am byth u biji Kurdistan.”
Recently 50 Nobel Laureates called 'on the government of Turkey and the International Community at large, to take immediate action at this critical moment to end the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan and all political prisoners in Turkey. In so doing we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of hunger strikers who are now pressing this same demand.
Signatories of this call included 10 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize: Adolfo Perez Esquivel (Argentina), Betty Williams (Northern Ireland), Desmond Tutu (South Africa), F. W. De Klerk (South Africa), Jody Williams (USA) Jose Ramos-Horta (East Timor), Leymah Roberta Gbowee (Liberia), Mairead Corrigan Maguire (Northern Ireland), Oscar Arias (Costa Rica) and Shirin Ebadi (Iran).
Secretary, Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign