Düşünce ve Kuram Dergisi


Kariane Westrheim


This article focuses on Kurdish political prisoners in Turkish prisons. Most of them accused of having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The main questions asked are “how important is resistance for the overall struggle?” and “How do political prisoners create meaning under seemingly meaningless or senseless prison conditions?” Based on a former qualitative interview study among Kurdish political prisoners (Westrheim, 2008) and research literature, educational and other forms of activities in prison constitute important tools for consciousness raising, resistance and meaning contributing to the strengthening of the prisoner’s personal development, the strengths of the collective of prisoners as well as the overall struggle. 



In November 1978, a group of Kurdish students founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the village of Fis near Lice. Abdullah Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara, became its first Secretary General. The foundation of the party came as a reaction to Turkish oppression of Kurds in Turkey and the continuous assimilation policy, disappearances, surveillance, killings and military interference in the Kurdish part of the country. From 1984 to 1999, the PKK waged war against Turkey with disastrous consequences for the Kurdish population. One of them was a huge number of political prisoners, the majority accused of having links to PKK. In the aftermath of the military coup in Turkey in 1980, the political left was nearly eradicated. However, waves of persecutions and arrests continued during the 1980ies and 1990ies and even up to present (Westrheim, 2008). 

Since the PKK’s foundation, educational activities have been an important part of its political and ideological program and a way of resistance in prison. In addition, education gave meaning to everyday life in prison (Westrheim, 2008). The PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, one of the most prominent political prisoner of all times, has been a significant driving force for education and innovation historically, ideologically and politically, and has initiated a number of societal transformations since the party foundation. 

Since Ocalan was captured and imprisoned in 1999 the PKK underwent a profound transformation during the 2000s. In this period the PKK experienced a comprehensive restructuration of its organization, ideology and political-military struggle, changing its course towards a project of more radical democracy (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2012). Among PKK’s and Ocalan’s greatest achievements though is women’s liberation, and for what became known as the Movement for a Democratic Society (KCK), which revisited the past ideas of the PKK in Imrali Prison. His new ideas were presented as “Democratic Confederalism” a term under which Ocalan proposes a democracy without a state as an alternative to capitalistic modernity. Core elements are liberation of women, gender, ethnic and religious equality, ecology and direct democracy where the lowest levels are taking part in the macro level of making decisions (Omrani, 2015). Despite the inhuman circumstances that imprisonment represents, Ocalan’s isolation, solitude, and lack of contact with lawyers and family, he has written some of his most significant written works precisely under these conditions. His writings have motivated people to action far beyond the Kurdish movement. From the grass root and organizational life to the political level, Kurds have started to build a future for themselves, which is believed to benefit the entire Middle East. Ocalan’s ideas have meant a lot for political prisoners to make meaning out of prison life. Not least, his ideas provide hope for the future and motivation for resistance

Political scientists, lawyers, historians and anthropologists (McDowell, 2000; Romano, 2006; White, 2000; Ozcan, 2006; Gunter, 1990; Green, 2002) have carried out considerable work regarding persecution, imprisonment and prison condition in Turkey from the seventies to the present. Torture and mistreatment of political prisoners during the 1980ies is described in detail by among others the former mayor and politician Mehdi Zana (Zana, 1997). The former imprisoned parliamentarian Leyla Zana (1999) shows how her personal development as a political prisoner in the beginning became virtually synonymous with the development of the Kurdish liberation struggle. In addition, Human Rights organisations; Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee among others have reported regularly and contributed to the description of conditions in Turkish prisons. As older literature is either Turkish or Kurdish, it did not reach a larger audience. However, for the last 15 years there has been an important change. Kurdish youth take higher education and many complete a PhD degree. Since there is a huge Kurdish diaspora, worldwide, Kurdish youth speak several languages. As a result, far more non-Kurds are gaining access to literature about the Kurdish people and the political situation in the states where they live. 

Who is the political prisoner?

Nelson Mandela, a world-known political prisoner of his time, once said that the best way to test a society’s conscience is to look at the way a given society treats its prisoners, especially political prisoners (2003). In his anthology of prison writings Geoffrey Bould (1991/2005) states that a political prisoner is someone who is held in captivity because his or her ideas and activities are perceived as threatening by the government because they challenge the authority of the state (2005, p. xvii). 

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher, journalist, linguist, writer and politician was imprisoned for political reasons between 1926 and 1936 when he was released due to severe health problems. Gramsci organized educational activities in prison and even started a prison school (scuola dei confinati) on the remote island of Ustica (Borg & Mayo, 2002, p. 93; Westrheim, 2008). 

While in prison, the state mostly regard it as crucial to create a feeling of solitude through isolation and a way to damage the moral of the prisoners. The more isolated the prisoners are the more abandoned they will feel. One example is the Irish Republican Army (IRA) activist and later MP, Bobby Sands. He died in prison at the age of 27, following 66 days of hunger strike. Sands writes that the prison management claimed that they no longer had the support of the people outside, their former supporters had turned their backs on them, and they were left alone (Sands 1998, p. xx). For political prisoners the feeling of solidarity from party colleagues outside or from those taking part in their struggle is an absolutely necessity in order to maintain the will to “survive” in prison and not least maintain the feeling that the incarceration has significance for themselves and their struggle. Several well-known political prisoners express that prison officers as well as representative from the authorities often meet met them with the same attitude of demoralization. 

Other means of demoralization can be criminalization, which is mentioned in the report Political prisoners, resistance and the law in Northern Ireland, prepared by Kieran McEvoy for Lawyers, Conflict & Transition project (2015). He claims that “Criminalization was an effort to use the prisons as site to try to break the IRA in particular. It entailed refusing to recognise the prisoners as politically motivated but rather as criminals (p.vi)” One strategy is to forcibly integrate them with opposing (political) factions and ordinary criminals, as well as attempting to compel the prisoner to work, wear a prison uniform and assume other trappings of ‘ordinary’ imprisonment. It led directly on the part of the prisoners to the resistant strategies of blanket protest, dirty protest and hungerstrike” (2015, p. iv). This strategy is frequently used in Turkish prisons, not only to criminalize political prisoners but also by criminalizing the prisoners’ family, friends and political allies.

Another example can be drawn from the African National Congress (ANC), an anti-apartheid movement with striking similarities to the Kurdish movement. The ANC politician ‘Mac’ Maharaj (1978) spent twelve years on Robben Island in the company of Nelson Mandela. One aim of the State, Maharaj says, was to isolate political prisoners in order to keep them silent. The intention was to hinder profiled political leaders to nourish the people with ideas that could threaten the interests of the state (1978, p. 179-80) (Westrheim, 2008). 


The educative element 

Also in the PKK history, there are several examples of prisoners like Mandela and Maharaj that became political symbols of the struggle by their knowledge and the way they provided ideas to their followers. Like Abdullah Ocalan, Mandela (2003) stressed the importance of education among his followers and according to him; there were strong educational aspects to most activities prisoners carried out in prison: 

“In the struggle, Robben Island was known as ‘the University’. This was not because of what we learned from books […]. Robben Island was known as ‘the University’ because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, and our own courses (Mandela 2003, p. 556).” 

As younger political prisoners often lacked both historical knowledge and education educated ANC members started to teach them in what Mandela (2003) termed a ‘Socratic style’. They gathered in groups around an appointed leader, ideas and theories were explained, discussed and negotiated (ibid, p. 454). This model seems quite similar to what the Brazilian educator and scholar Paulo Freire (1972) terms cultural circles, a model required not only to unveil societal structures of domination, but also in order for people to acquire literacy skills, gain self-consciousness and take charge of the future development of society. This is not unlike the practice in the early stages of the PKK when they visited people in the villages, not to persuade them to join the newly founded party, but to contribute to an awareness-raising process that enabled people to look at the society and the world in new ways (Westrheim, 2008, 2010).

However, little would have been achieved if the activities in prison were not connected to what in some ways was going on outside prison. In the history of the ANC and the Kurdish movement there seem to be some main sites for political education as well as for resistance. These sites are equally important and can be a party office, prisons, the streets, diaspora communities and in the Kurdish case – the mountain camps were the initial military and ideological training of the guerrillas take place. To the PKK, prison seems to have been significant for the development and knowledge construction of the broader liberation movement. 


Political education and awareness: the foundation for resistance

Several political prisoners – in this case a HDP representatives – use their time in prison to write and smuggle their writings to followers outside prison. Some even start on major literary work. In his recent book Dawn (2018), the imprisoned HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas tells the story about Nazan who on her way to work involuntarily became involved in a political demonstration. She was injured and ended up in hospital and later arrested together with some protesters. To make the longer story short, from being a poor young woman growing up under very difficult circumstances and without education, her short time of imprisonment brings her to awareness of her social status and the political situation of the Kurds. At the end of the story, Nazan reflects over her current situation: 

“I am my father’s daughter. The daughter of a man whose Mustang dreams were crushed beneath a rusty old city bus. A working-woman who wound up in prison. I’ve never taken part in a demonstration, not once in my whole life. Being in here, I’ve come to see my neighborhood in a completely different light. And while I may not be in prison much longer, these six months have been enough for me to get to know myself. And there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in here: If you walk with courage and determination, sometimes you can move faster than a car. My name is Nazan the Cleaning Lady – look out, Ankara, here I come.” (Demirtas, 2018, p. 62). 

Nazan’s story stands as a testimony to the many Kurds who for no reason end up as political prisoners in Turkish prisons, but who through the collective of other political prisoners learn something about their own background, learn to transform their previous ignorance and lack of consciousness into expanded knowledge and increased awareness about the Kurdish people’s situation.

What is going on inside a prison ward? Being in prison, often strengthened rather than reduces the prisoners’ political conviction. Many prisoners linked to the PKK had poor rural or working class backgrounds, others had higher education or held political office. Despite harsh prison conditions, many of them simultaneously got the opportunity to learn. Those without former education often experienced to be taken seriously, many for the first time in their lives. Not few of those who were released later went to the mountains (Westrheim, 2010) or became loyal members working in Kurdish communities. Commitment, devotion and a strong sense of identification are crucial elements in all political movements. 

Prisons in Turkey have developed from partly self-organizing wards during the 1990ies, to isolated cells with limited chances for educational activities after 2000. According to Green (2002) many wards were populated by people convicted of membership of one or another illegally armed political group, even if they knew what was going on, prison staff was normally not present within the wards. Groups of prisoners organized the daily life, which included sessions of political discussion and education. The ward facilitated communication between prisoners, organisation and a sense of close community particularly for those who were members of political organisations (2002, p. 98). In the study among former political prisoners linked to the PKK (Westrheim, 2008), they report to have sensed a particular atmosphere, different from that outside of the walls. As one of them claimed: 

“In my ward there were up to 180 prisoners at the most. During my stay in that prison, I experienced thousands of prisoners coming and going. In spite of this it was striking how friendly and respectful the atmosphere was among the prisoners”. 

Even today, Turkish authorities fear that open prison wards will foster the growth of terrorist and criminal organisations, and become centres for terrorist education (Green, 2002, p. 98). The apparently self-organized prisons therefore underwent a radical change since 2000 when Turkey started to isolate political prisoners in so-called K-type prisons in order to ‘rehabilitate’ political prisoners. Small-group isolation is a regime whereby political prisoners remain in their cells, shared with a few inmates and for lengthy periods with little or no possibility for activities, proper exercise, or educational programs. This would also limit the possibility of community and solidarity among prisoners. One of the participants in the study describes how inmates wrote messages and secretly sent them from cell to cell. The staff did what they could to hinder communication between prisoners and thereby any kind of educational activities (Westrheim, 2008). 

For several political prisoner educational activities in prison became the bridge between the past and the present. Throughout incarceration, they gained new perspectives on life, the political situation, and their own development. For some women, like Nazan, the imprisonment became like a gendered re-birth. Prisons are still an important educational site that have had profound influence on the prisoners’ personal development and have contributed substantially to the overall struggle of the Kurdish movement. Former interviewed political prisoners (Westrheim, 2008) emphasize the crucial role political education in prison have had to the Kurdish communities and for Diaspora. This excerpt serves to illuminate this point: 

Living and learning with other political prisoners changed my attitude to the world and to my Kurdish people. Being a part of the PKK empowers you, gives you confidence, strength and makes you brave and willing to take risks. I have experienced many terrible things before I was imprisoned, and in prison and afterwards. I am no longer afraid of anything any longer.

This clearly shows that the stay in prison, even if horrible and extremely hard, also adds meaning to political prisoners and strengthen them in ways that seems inconceivable to those left outside the walls. 


Political Prisoners in Turkey 

According to Middle East Eye (MacDonald, 2020) Turkey’s prison-population has vastly increased since the 2016 July coup attempt. As of January 2019, there were 30 947 people in prison on charges linked to either terrorism or the coup attempt. The vast majority is Kurds. As the outside world only gets to know about the most prominent prisoners such as Abdullah Ocalan, Selahattin Demirtas, Figen Yuksedag and other Kurdish politicians and leaders, thousands of imprisoned Kurds remain forgotten and hidden in various prisons in Turkey

Turkey has a long history of persecution and repression of opposition figures, including academics and students. It is estimated that at least 70 000 students are imprisoned in Turkish prisons. In 1994, Kurdish geography student Illhan Comac was arrested at the University of Istanbul when participating in a peaceful demonstration against the Turkish government’s treatment of Kurds. He was convicted of having political links to the PKK and was given a life-long sentence. Comac has been incarcerated for 26 years. He started writing poems very early and in time, International Pen has noticed his writings and he is now linked to an international campaign for his release. Comac’s authorship made him known outside prison but more important it made him endure an unbearable and endless sentence, which became a clear signal that he would not give up resisting the authorities’ attempts to crack him.

Oppression, torture, killings and imprisonment have followed Kurds through history (McDowell, 2000; Romano, 2006). Bould (2005) claims that under oppressive regimes groups of people or even an entire people, as in this case the Kurds, can suffer under the use of state-legitimized violence. In a totalitarian regime the entire nation is imprisoned as the individual lives in constant fear (ibid, p. xvii). Turkey has a heavy legacy of widespread violence and torture dating back to the military coup on 12. September 1980, that brought on a more stringent regime in Kurdistan. According to White (2000, p. 148) the PKK was hit particularly hard by the military repression. Nearly 1790 suspected PKK members were captured, including members of the PKK central committee, during this wave of mass detentions. This was substantially more than from any other single Kurdish group (Mc Dowell, 2003, p.420). Prison conditions were so harsh at the time that many political prisoners staged prolonged hunger strikes or committed suicide (Kutschera, 1994). Former political prisoners describe in detail the torture and horror they had to undergo for years (Zana 1997). In Diyarbakir prison, alone 32 prisoners were officially acknowledged to have died between 1981 and 1984, while unofficial sources estimated many times this number (McDowell, 2000, p. 425). At Diyarbakir prison certain forms of resistance organized by the PKK following the military takeover, differed from the rest of the Turkish and Kurdish opposition among others by the phenomenon of self-immolation (Ozcan, 2006, p. 195-96). 

Narratives of martyrdom follow the PKK history. One early example is that of Mazloum Dogan who hanged himself in his cell in 1982. A few weeks later, ‘The Four’; Mahmut Zengin, Ferhat Kurtay, Esref Anyik and Necmi Öner immolated themselves hand-in-hand. Their comrades tried to put out the flames, but the four refused, insisting that it was a ‘freedom fire’ (Kutschera, 1994, p. 13). 

Many imprisoned PKK cadres chose to commit suicide in prison rather than to make a televised confession (Romano, 2006, p. 72) and these first martyrs became examples to many other PKK followers and political prisoners for the years to come. 

In a recent statement of 25 September 2020, the foreign co-spokespersons of HDP informed that 82 arrests have taken place as an onslaught against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Since 2015, 16,000 HDP members and administrators have been detained while over 5000 of them were later arrested and sent to prisons. The former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksedag, members of parliament, dozens of elected mayors, and countless members and administrators are already behind bars. The government fear the HDP because of the fact that in the first elections the HDP will play a crucial political role for the democratic future of Turkey (which simultaneously means the demise of the AKP-MHP alliance). According to Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (PIK 27.09.20), the 82 detained were accused of murder, attempted murder, theft, damaging property, looting, burning the Turkish flag and injuring 326 security officials and 435 citizens. As mentioned above criminalizing political prisoners is a way to break the morale by not acknowledging the prisoners as what they really are. 

However, even if one could assume that such a mass arrest would break the party and the will to continue its political path, the foreign affairs co-spokespersons Feleknas Uca and Hişyar Özsoy claim they will not kneel before unlawful attacks by the government but continue the struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity, both inside and outside of prison. These numbers come in addition to other arrests of academics, demonstrators, youth and the latest strategy of Erdogan is the persecution, arrests and murder of women. 

After the outbreak of COVI-19 Erdogan released 90 000 criminal prisoners, while political prisoners remained incarcerated. By doing this, the Turkish state underlines that prisons are meant to punish designated enemies of the state. Those who violate rights of individuals by murdering or robbing them can be regarded as less dangerous.

The total prison population in Turkey is about 300 000, 50 000 are charged with terrorism mainly linked to PKK, Erdogan’s state enemy number one. Among those imprisoned on terrorism charges are before mentioned Selahattin Demirtas, the previous co-leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party HDP; Ahmet Altan, well-known journalist and author; and the philanthropist and businessperson Osman Kavala. In short, the Erdogan regime still keep tens of thousands of academics, journalists, politicians, civil servants and others in prison, who did not commit any crime other than being affiliated with groups the regime sees as political threats.


Ways of resistance

According to McEvoy (2015) the community of political prisoners differ from that of criminal prisoners. One significant difference is that the agency of political prisoners extends beyond just dealing with everyday prison life. Either they have experience from previous prison stays or some of the fellow prisoners have. They might as well have organizational, military and intellectual skills. This long and varied experience makes them stronger in strategic and coordinated planning of the resistance and puts them in a favorable position benefitting the greater resistance outside of prison. As the authorities regard imprisonment of political prisoners as punishment, a site for control and discipline where they easily can be crushed psychologically and physically – the prisoners themselves often regard the prison as just another arena for resistance and an extended room for combat. In this way, they often manage to reduce the effectiveness of the prison managers’ control and surveillance. Most probably, the political prisoners have supportive political constituencies, willing lawyers and of course, organizations on whose help they can rely on and call for (McEvoy, 2015, p. 8-10).

Most political prisoners belong to some sort of collective organisation outside prison – a political party, an organisation, a political movement, other activists etc. While in prison, it becomes crucial to reorganize the collective political structure and adapt it to the circumstances of the prison. McEvoy (2015, p. 9) shows to Buntman’s (2003) description of how political ANC prisoners on Robben Island organized their resistance against apartheid. Both ANC and IRA “placed emphasis on the ‘communal’ nature of their imprisonment, putting into practice their broadly socialist leanings by, for example, pooling resources.” As mentioned earlier, this gives associations to how Kurdish political prisoners organized life in prison based on former experiences and reliable networks outside and thereby gained great importance for the struggle as well as to the prisoners’ status and respect. 

One dramatic form of resistance is hunger strike, which is a “well-known strategy of resistance in political, ethnic and social conflicts. From the historic suffragettes in England to students, pacifists and human rights activists, as well as veterans protesting against war (…). However, organized protests to the death are more associated with politically motivated prisoners. In South Africa, Israel and Palestine, the former Soviet Union, West Germany and Turkey (…), political prisoners have long since resorted to hunger strike.” (McEvoy, 2015, p. 16). An example from Turkey is how the Kurdish HDP MP Leyla Güven who went on hunger strike on 7 November 2018 effectively launching her resistance. At the time, she went on hunger strike she was held illegally in prison, despite having been elected to parliament. One of the key resources for political prisoners is their potential to elicit sympathy in the face of a powerful and often repressive regime. In solidarity with Güven and the Kurdish cause, thousands of prisoners and dozens of activists around the world went on hunger strike demanding the end of isolation against Abdullah Öcalan. Fourteen of these were prominent Kurdish activists who went on hunger strike in Strasbourg; many of the hunger strikers later turned their action into death fast. 

Turkey has a dark history of horrible prison conditions, not least in their treatment of political prisoners. In the period 2002-2003, 107 prisoners died on hunger strike, but it seems that political conflicts continue without significant change despite events in the prison (McEvoy, 2015, p. 13). Being a political prisoner in Turkey and of course other repressive states, means you have to endure hardship in the encounter with both psychological and physical torture. In this way, during a hunger strike, the body becomes a symbolic site of struggle. In other words, the bodies of Leyla Güven and other political prisoners’ on hunger strike became sites of struggle when prison authorities forced to feed them, which they later did. 

Collective organized gatherings in prison, hunger strikes, letters and messages to the outside world, political, ideological, educational activities and prison writings are powerful examples of resistance strategies that political prisoners use in order to oppose the prison regime and the authorities. Not only are they effective counter actions towards a repressive system, they also help to create meaning in surroundings that are imposed on them because of political action and conviction.


Concluding comment: The meaning of resistance  

In a review of the book The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (Berger, 2014), Angela Y. Davies writes: 

The issue of political prisoners is not about individuals but about the deep and enduring bonds of community resistance. Prisons are at the center of contemporary freedom struggles.” Every single political prisoner is a powerful witness rooted in the collective history of the movement or a given community. This means that the very fact that a person end up as a political prisoner is a sign to the movement that their activities are seen as a threat to the state. Resistance or opposition to the regime means that the prisoner refuses to be a passive spectator of state abuse on behalf of his people.” 

These words show how close the connection is between people imprisoned for something they believe in and the community outside that supports them. In this way, prison becomes a manifestation of all that is inhumane, but at the same time, political prisoners become the embodiment of the humane, something that no despotic system can break. Prison becomes a symbol of indomitable resistance, hope and freedom.

Even if writing about prisoners in general, Ugelvik (2014) makes a crucial point when he claims that many “prisoners turn themselves into active opponents of the prison regime, not passive objects of state power, through various methods (…).” 

This tells us that Turkish authorities’ attempts to stifle opposition and to eradicate support for the Kurdish liberation movement which they regard as associated with the PKK, are very much in vain. Imprisonment of political prisoners and the constant persecution of Kurds only strengthen and increase adherence, and not least, the prison will function as an educational and awareness-raising institution, more than a disciplinary arena.

In Angela Davies words, as long as the deep and enduring bonds between community resistance and political prisoners exist – prisons will continue to be a site for contemporary freedom struggles. Only in this way, through an almost organic relationship between political prisoners and their communities, will political prisoners find meaning in their imprisonment.



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