A reporter unjustly detained

September 9, 2010

Jake Hess is an American freelance journalist who lived in the Kurdish southeastern region of Turkey for almost two years, where he worked as a journalist; a translator, guide and interpreter for other journalists; and an English teacher.

On August 11, he was detained by Turkey's "anti-terrorism" police and subsequently deported to the U.S. Hess' arrest, widely seen as retaliation for his reporting, made international headlines, drawing protests from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Hess spoke to Margaree Little and Shaun Joseph about his detention, the background of the Kurdish struggle, and the role of the U.S.

PRESS AROUND your case stated that you'd been detained by Turkish authorities in connection with an upcoming trial against members of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). But your lawyer Serkan Akbas said the accusation of connections to the KCK was an "excuse," and that your detention was because of your reporting on human rights violations. Why do you think you were detained?

SERKAN WAS basically right. During my interrogation, I was asked extensively about my writings on human rights abuses against the Kurdish people and my contacts with legal human rights groups in Turkey and the United Kingdom. My interrogators accused me of waging a "smear campaign" against Turkey and derided me for "harming Turkey's international reputation."

At one point, one of the "anti-terror" police, who was apparently in charge of dealing with my case, even remarked that he didn't think I was connected to the KCK and that I'd most likely be acquitted. In any event, there's no doubt in my mind that I was targeted for perfectly legal activities--and I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that the same isn't true for everyone else who has been arrested under this operation.

Jake Hess
Jake Hess

WHAT WERE the circumstances of your detention, and how were you treated in prison?

I WAS in Diyarbakir translating for the German photojournalist Benjamin Hiller. We were sitting in our hotel room when a group of police from the anti-terror department of the Diyarbakir Security Directorate knocked on our door and presented me with a search and arrest warrant with the accusation that I had been in sustained contact with and acting on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and KCK.

They confiscated my laptop, phone, notebooks and so on, and drove me to the anti-terror department's detention center, where I spent a total of four nights. The first night, I was interrogated for five or six hours. In total, there were about 10 or 15 civil police constantly going in and out of the room, several of them asking questions at the same time. One's job was to insult me, another posed as the reasonable, learned one, others asked an unending set of irrelevant questions, and some simply stared at me menacingly.

In situations like this, police try to overwhelm and intimidate you with the hope that you'll slip up. More than anything, it's a big psychological game. If something like this ever happens to you, just relax, have a sense of humor, give short answers, and maintain eye contact and confident body language--don't give them the satisfaction of thinking they're angering or intimidating you.

We spent a lot of time discussing fairly unrelated things. For example, we had a long discussion about Northern Ireland, and how the conflict there may or may not be comparable to that in southeastern Turkey. At points, it was just farcical.

The next day, my first morning in detention, they asked me one or two questions about some unremarkable e-mail I had received from a human rights group in Iraq. After that, they didn't interrogate me at all during the last three nights I was there. After I had been held for more than 48 hours, they detained five of my friends, none of whom had been discussed during the interrogation.

These people were detained for a few reasons. One, they wanted a pretext to extend my period of detention. Two, they wanted to create the impression that I had ratted those people out, even though their names hadn't come up during my interrogation, and there's nothing to rat them out for in the first place. Three, they wanted to send a message to local people: if you share your experiences and ideas with foreign observers, you'll be punished.

Later, I gave a three-hour statement to the public prosecutor responsible for the ongoing arrest operations, then spent four days in pre-deportation custody before being sent back to the U.S. They paid for the plane ticket. The police said racist things about the Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers who I was held with in the pre-deportation center--for example, that the asylum seekers smelled so bad they couldn't even enter the room.

If they smelled, which they didn't, one of the reasons would be that the police were depriving them of basic items like shampoo and shaving cream. They'd apparently never spoken to a lawyer during their three months in pre-deportation custody. They were fine people--just innocent young men running for their lives and being treated like dangerous criminals.

WHAT'S BEHIND Turkish policy toward the Kurds? Why does there seem to be an escalated attack on "pro-Kurdish" civil society now?

THERE WAS a time when Turkish policy was about assimilating the Kurds and suppressing their language and culture. The mere existence of Kurds was even denied; they were known as "mountain Turks," and there was a myth saying they called themselves "Kurd" because of the crunching sound one creates when walking through snow.

Older people in Kurdish areas still remember getting fined on the street for speaking Kurdish. Correspondingly, the Kurdish struggle was initially about getting their existence as a people accepted, never mind democratizing the country.

As a result of the Kurdish people's sustained struggle, things have changed, and virtually no one denies the existence of Kurds or the Kurdish language any more. There are still significant barriers to the free use of Kurdish in public areas, including in broadcasting and education, but it's generally accepted that Kurds and their culture do indeed exist. After all, how can one deny the existence of Kurds when there's a mass political movement and 26-year-old guerrilla war for Kurdish rights taking place, to say nothing of what's going on in the other parts of Kurdistan?

There's a state TV channel that broadcasts in Kurdish 24 hours a day, and even if it's a cynical and hypocritical political ploy, the channel does indicate that there's been a major change in mentality. Something like that would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

In my opinion, the main issues up for debate now are what form state recognition of Kurdish identity will take, what rights Kurds have as a people and so on, though many Kurds from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) tradition--the political party that commands nearly 100 municipalities, has a group in parliament, and generally shares the same base and demands as the PKK--argue that the state has still not come to the point where Kurds are recognized as a united people with group rights.

While the PKK initially fought for an independent Kurdish state and recognition of Kurds as a people, the Kurdish struggle now essentially aims at securing rights and democracy within Turkey's existing borders.

In particular, the Kurds want a new constitution that secures basic human rights, including linguistic and cultural rights for all peoples and includes a civic rather than ethnic definition of citizenship; public education in the Kurdish language; devolution of power from the center to strengthened local administrations; and active inclusion of the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in any conflict resolution process.

By the way, I should point out that it would be lazy and simplistic to merely call the Kurdish movement in Turkey "nationalistic." In my view, it's even slightly problematic to use the phrase "Kurdish movement"; "Kurdish-democratic movement" might be more appropriate. Many foreign analysts call the BDP a "Kurdish party," for example, but that's probably because most foreign correspondents in Turkey apparently spend most of their time in luxury shopping malls and bars in Istanbul, and thus aren't really aware of what's going on in the southeast.

BDP mayors and parliamentarians, and most of their grassroots organizers, overwhelmingly reject the "nationalist" label and see themselves as fighting a universal struggle for the emancipation and equality of all peoples, not just the Kurds. They're quick to point out that Kurds have suffered immensely from nationalism. Notably, the Kurdish movement's demands are broadly shared by left and democratic forces across the country, though it's also true that many see the PKK's influence over Kurdish politics as problematic.

The BDP is similar to some of the newer Latin American parties that have sprung up, in the sense that they try to maintain relations with social movements and aim at mass bottom-up organization and movement building. In many regards, they're more of a movement than a party, or at least they're definitely part of a movement that is bigger than their own party. They've placed high emphasis on dealing with women's rights and bringing women to positions of leadership, both within the party, local government and in parliament; they enforce a 40 percent gender quota in their work.

As such, the Kurdish movement has truly become a mass-based fight for democracy with strong, organized roots across the southeast and, increasingly, other parts of the country. They've succeeded in winning the sympathy of important swathes of Turkish and international public opinion. Professor Nicole Watts of San Francisco State University has published some outstanding articles on the BDP tradition and what the party is all about, and she apparently has a book coming out soon, too.

So, just to get to your question: in my view, Turkish policy now is about crushing the Kurds, not because they're Kurds, but because Kurds are basically at the forefront of the most dynamic movement for democracy in the country. In many ways, Turkey is a typical example of an authoritarian state trying to crush a democratic movement with the familiar thuggish tactics, with a dose of racism thrown in. Kurds have shown they can't and won't be assimilated, so the state has backed off from that goal.

BUT IF it's not an issue of "separatism" or "terrorism," why can't Turkey seem to resolve the Kurdish issue?

FIRST, IT'S important to understand that since 1993, the PKK has embarked on a number of unilateral ceasefires in order to clear the way for negotiations and a political settlement within Turkey's borders.

Almost every week, Abdullah Ocalan reiterates his support for a negotiated solution and announces his preparedness to participate constructively. Unfortunately, the Turkish state has never recognized these efforts, at least not publicly, and no serious process of negotiation has been undertaken. The BDP's appeals have been met with heavy repression, including mass arrests and unending prosecutions.

Resolving the Kurdish issue would essentially mean transitioning Turkey from the authoritarian half-democracy it is now--the country has reasonably fair, normal elections and so on--into a truly democratic nation. It would also mean ending the war.

Both of these outcomes would be disastrous for the segments of the Turkish state that benefit from constant tension and crisis--notably the army, whose role in Turkish politics depends heavily on an atmosphere of conflict. Furthermore, if the PKK and Ocalan are recognized as legitimate political actors--something that will need to happen as part of a settlement--then the state instantly loses its preferred excuse for all varieties of repression.

If you accept the PKK and Ocalan as negotiating partners, that means you can't just, say, throw journalists and human rights defenders in jail for their alleged ties to the PKK. It would also be de facto recognition by the state that their years of violently repressing the Kurds in the name of stopping the PKK was wrong. In many crucial respects, the ongoing war is a huge gift to the most reactionary, anti-democratic elements within Turkish politics, who are afraid of losing power in a peace agreement.

Moreover, if the Kurdish issue is resolved, it will be remembered as the second major revolution in Turkey--the first being the establishment of the republic after the First World War--and the ideological foundation of the Turkish state will have to be revised. So the government would ultimately have to discard the old myth that everyone in that country aside from the various Christian communities are Sunni Muslim Turks living under Ataturk's infallible ideology, and think of some new national myth.

Dealing with the Kurdish issue would also lead inevitably to dealing with unfinished business relating to the Armenian genocide and Turkey's other demons, and would instantly bring a number of difficult topics to the table--namely, how to address the legacy of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other atrocities perpetrated during the war; what to do with the massive internally displaced population left over from the 1990s; what to do with the village guards, a massive paramilitary system that involves roughly 80,000 people; how to demilitarize the southeast; and so on.

So, in one respect, solving the Kurdish issue wouldn't be terribly difficult in the sense that the broad outlines of a solution are clear to everyone and that the Kurds, including the PKK, are definitely ready for a settlement. In another respect, it would, for the reasons I mentioned, amount to a major undertaking, but one that is ultimately necessary for the good of Turkey's future.

WHAT IS U.S. policy with regards to Turkey and the Kurds? Why does the U.S. seem to be hostile to Kurds in Turkey, yet allied with the Kurds in Iraq?

WELL, THE U.S. doesn't really have a policy toward the Kurds as a people; they're viewed as a minority in the various countries they live in. The U.S. presumably looks at the Roma of Europe in the same way, for example.

The U.S. record on Kurdish issues in disgraceful in both Iraq and Turkey. Currently, the U.S. is trying to maintain good relations with Iraqi Kurds, as the area under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government is one of the few reasonably peaceful, stable and pro-American areas in Iraq. (As an example of how safe it is, I even hitchhiked when I was there.)

For their part, Iraqi Kurds generally support the U.S. project in Iraq and want the U.S. to stay. They're afraid a U.S. withdrawal could result in the emergence of a new dictator, ethnic war spreading to the Kurdish areas and any number of other undesirable outcomes. The Iraqi Kurds are a traumatized people, and they want to prevent another disaster from occurring.

It hasn't always been like this, of course. The U.S. has betrayed Iraqi Kurds several times. For example, in the 1970s, the Nixon administration encouraged Iraqi Kurds to revolt against the Baghdad government in order to help give the Shah of Iran leverage in a border dispute with Iraq. Nixon and Kissinger poured $16 million worth of secret aid into the conflict and armed the Kurds with Soviet weapons distributed by Israel.

The U.S. abruptly cut off the funding after Iran and Iraq settled their dispute, leaving the Kurds vulnerable to an Iraqi crackdown that ended with thousands of deaths and some 200,000 refugees, according to the Pike Committee Report, which added that the Kurds might have reached an agreement with Baghdad, had the U.S. not encouraged them to hold out.

As is well known, the U.S. went on to support Saddam Hussein's vicious repression of the Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to unbelievable slaughter and hardship, but the people who were responsible for these things during the Reagan and first Bush administrations remembered that they loved the Kurds of Iraq when it came time to invade again in 2003. Some people express their love in ways that the rest of us find difficult to understand.

The U.S. supplied Turkey with the majority of the weaponry it used to depopulate Kurdish villages and commit other human rights violations in the 1990s, as the Arms Trade Resource Center and Human Rights Watch have documented in outstanding reports.

Despite the fact that they have never attacked U.S. citizens of the U.S. itself, the Bush administration deemed the PKK a "common enemy" of Iraq, Turkey and the U.S. in 2007, and the U.S. has provided Turkey with actionable intelligence on PKK positions across the border.

As the recently departed U.S. ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey, pointed out, Washington and Ankara are currently exploring ways to deepen their common war against the PKK, including through new arms sales. Jeffrey said, "We're trying to get as much as possible for Turkey as soon as possible."

Washington has also opened more of Iraq's airspace to facilitate Turkish bombings of PKK positions. I witnessed firsthand how these attacks are driving innocent people into appalling tent camps and generating severe, needless suffering. State Department officials have announced that they plan to "put the PKK out of business."

Turkey is a strategic country for the U.S., and U.S. support for Turkey's repression is somewhat a reflection of that. For example, the U.S. maintains an important air base, called Incirlik, near the Turkish city of Adana. Some 75 percent of U.S. air cargo that goes to Iraq passes through there, and a quarter of the oil the U.S. uses in Iraq passes through the Iraqi-Turkish border. Use of Turkish airspace is also a crucial part of U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the senior Republican foreign policy official, succinctly described Turkey's importance for U.S. strategic interests when he wrote the following in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

The U.S. already has security commitments in the [Persian] Gulf, an area that is vital to the world's oil supplies. The relative importance of the Caspian region is growing, though, due to its tremendous oil and gas reserves. Turkish military facilities provide an excellent location for projecting power to both the gulf and the Caspian Basin. Much of the world's energy resources are within 1,000 miles of Incirlik.

Access to the Turkish bases can reduce the amount of military presence required in some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Turkey is also a viable pipeline route for bringing some of the oil and gas from the Caspian to world markets.

The U.S. wants to be on good terms with Turkey because of its obvious strategic and economic importance, and that's one reason they support Turkey's war against the PKK. But the U.S. is also afraid of the PKK because, as I said, it's part of a major movement for democracy and social justice, one of the most dynamic in the Middle East.

As Chomsky has demonstrated clearly in his work, the U.S. is constantly afraid that successful rebellions against the U.S. or its allies will inspire similar rebellions in different parts of the world. Otherwise, why would the U.S., for example, brutally bomb millions of peasants in Vietnam? Why were they so afraid of the Vietnamese revolution?

The PKK has fought off NATO's second-largest army and its U.S. patron for nearly 30 years. That's pretty impressive, and presumably inspirational for other oppressed peoples across the world. It's important to show that there can be no successful defiance of the U.S., and no viable political model independent of that preferred by the U.S., and the U.S. is trying to send that message that by helping Turkey crush the PKK.

THE TURKISH government is critical of Israel. Yet in a recent interview you characterized the actions of the Turkish military in Kurdish regions as "typical of the cruelty of an occupying force." Could you say more about this?

I WAS talking specifically about how the Turkish army uses forest fires as a political tool. In the 1990s, between 3,500 and 4,000 Kurdish villages and settlements were destroyed, leading to the displacement of between roughly 1 million to 3 million Kurds, depending on the estimates you accept.

Turkey claimed it was fighting the PKK, but it's also arguable that a goal was to alter the pattern of settlement and population in the countryside, as dispersed rural populations always hold out the threat of insurgency and rebellion, especially in the case of Turkey, which has seen 29 Kurdish rebellions in its history, as former Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel once noted.

A number of instruments are used to maintain the new pattern of rural settlement, which basically means obstructing the returns of displaced people. One of them is ensuring that the old villages stay uninhabitable, and one way to do that is to burn the agricultural and grazing lands that villagers depend on for income.

Many displaced people say that one of the reasons they can't return is that the Turkish army, or village guards, burn their fields and crops every year. This is something you hear very, very frequently if you interview displaced people.

Basically, what happens is the army open fires on the land and lets the resulting fires burn until everything is scorched. They say the fire was directed at the PKK, and subsequently do nothing to stop the fire. Eventually, the fire dies out on its own, and the necessary damage is done. Such things have been witnessed recently especially in Sirnak, Batman and Dersim.

While there's a clear strategic goal, some of this is just, as I said, arbitrary cruelty and vandalism. For example, soldiers started a fire near two villages in Sirnak, Ikizce and Toptepe, in July. Those villages had been evacuated during the 1990s but most of the inhabitants have returned.

The villagers asserted that there's no fighting between the army and the PKK in their area, but that the army burns their agricultural and grazing land almost every year, causing them considerable hardship. Furthermore, the government never moves to suppress the fires once they begin.

So what then is the army trying to do? Is there some profound philosophy behind it? Maybe they're trying to re-displace the villagers, but it's more likely that this is standard military thuggery, in the same way that, say, arbitrarily putting concrete blocks in the middle of roads in the West Bank, or sniping school children as they sit in classrooms in Gaza is.

WHAT CAN people do to support human rights activists in Turkey and Kurdistan

IN THE U.S., we need some kind of solidarity platform similar to the Peace in Kurdistan campaign in England, which has done an excellent job raising the issue there and developing long-term efforts that are really quite helpful in the solidarity struggle. People of the ZNet, CounterPunch and Democracy Now! tradition should understand that there's a major, mass-based fight for democracy taking place in the Kurdish region, one that deserves our attention and support.

Furthermore, people more inclined toward graduate school and research should definitely consider this a possible field of study. The existing literature on Turkey and the Kurds is quite meager and often low quality. There are no outstanding, authoritative books on U.S. policy toward Turkey and the Kurds, for example.

People interested in human rights journalism should also consider reporting from southeastern Turkey. There are loads of under-reported topics that need attention, and virtually no foreigners spend significant amounts of time there. Sometimes foreign correspondents leave the luxury restaurants in Istanbul to spend a day or two in the southeast, but even that's pretty rare.

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