EU Sakharov Prize

Leyla Zana Waits Nine Years to Accept Award

She had to wait almost a decade for this moment, but on Thursday Leyla Zana was in Brussels to thank the European parliament for the Sakharov prize, awarded to her in 1995. By Deutsche Welle staff

She had to wait almost a decade for this moment, but on Thursday Leyla Zana was in Brussels to thank the European parliament for the Sakaharov prize, awarded to her in 1995.´By Deutsche Welle staff

photo: AP
Leyla Zana is seen by many Kurds as an icon of their cause

​​Kurdish human rights activist, Leyla Zana won the European Parliament's Sakharov freedom prize in 1995 for her peaceful work to advance human rights for the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

Then 34 years-old, she was unable to collect it, because she was imprisoned in Turkey for suspected ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

A Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, Zana had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

She had served ten years of that sentence before her release in June this year.

Widely seen as a prisoner of conscience, her release was viewed as a sign of Turkey's commitment to the legal and political reforms demanded by the European Union as terms of its accession. A court freed her under pressure from EU officials who said she had not received a fair trial. An appeals court is currently reviewing the case.

Implementation still 'cosmetic'

Speaking partly in Turkish and partly in Kurdish - a language whose public use was long banned in Turkey - Zana, a former pro-Kurdish lawmaker, called on Turkey Thursday for dialogue between cultures and greater rights for Turkey's minority Kurds.

"Violence has outlived its time," Zana told the European
Union assembly. "The language and method of solution of
our age is dialogue, compromise and peace. It is not 'die
and kill,' but 'live and let live'."

She said efforts to improve human rights in order to meet European Union criteria would otherwise be meaningless.

"Significant steps have certainly been taken towards democracy. But the implementation of these steps still seems cosmetic," Zana said. "The Copenhagen criteria must be implemented in essence and not just in words."

An uneasy relationship

The first Kurdish woman ever to serve in the Turkish parliament, Zana took her parliamentary oath in 1991. But when she insisted on speaking Kurdish, Turkey was outraged. She and three other lawmakers were later barred from the assembly. Then, in 1994, she was jailed for alleged ties to Kurdish separatists.

Over 30,000 people died in the early 1990s, when Kurdish rebels fought for an ethnic homeland in south-eastern Turkey.

Turkey's 12 million Kurds have long had an uneasy relationship with the Turkish state, which cracked down on Kurdish expressions of culture, fearful of separatist tendencies.

Although bans on Kurdish broadcasting and education have been largely lifted during Turkey's drive to join the EU, use of the language is still heavily regulated. Zana stressed Thursday that Ankara still has a long way ahead of it.

Resolving the Kurdish issue

In Brussels one week after the European Commission presented its opinion on whether Turkey has met the conditions for opening EU membership talks, she urged the Turkish government to remove restrictions on the Kurdish population.

"The Turkish government must put on its agenda the democratic solution to the Kurdish issue by giving it a proper name," she said.

"Everything that is not given a name and not defined is without identity," she argued. "Every living thing on earth has a name. It is only the Kurds who do not have a name," she told the 732-member assembly, which gave her speech a standing ovation.

"There is no reason for not defining the issue, and there is no reason for fearing dialogue and peace," she said. "The Kurds are firmly resolved to introduce a peaceful solution within Turkey's territories."


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