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Where Standing Up for Kurdish Rights Is a Crime

In Germany, that supposed bastion of liberal democracy, the state treats standing up for Kurdish rights as tantamount to terrorism — and hits activists with house searches, imprisonment, and even deportation.

A participant of the initial rally of a demonstration of Kurds in Berlin, Germany, against the invasion of the Turkish army in Syria. Christoph Soeder / picture alliance via Getty

Imagine you are the parent of school-age children. You are politically active, raising your voice for social justice. Now imagine that the state wants to take away your kids, accusing you of raising them as terrorists.

Does this sound like the machinations of an authoritarian regime? Unfortunately, this very scenario is taking place in Germany, that supposed bastion of liberal democracy. A Kurdish mother of five children, Zozan G, is in danger of being deprived of custody because she is a longtime activist for Kurdish and democratic rights. Hers is just one of the more recent incidents in the long history of Kurdish persecution in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

Since the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was banned in 1993, thousands of Kurds and their supporters have been harassed: house searches, bans on political activities, imprisonment, and much more. The German majority tends not to pay attention to this extreme repression, but it intrudes into all areas of Kurdish life.

The History of Repression

Persecution of dissenting leftists has been on the agenda since the 1948 founding of the post–World War II West German state, which was steeped in anti-communism and allowed former Nazis to serve in high-ranking positions. In 1956, the government banned the Communist Party of Germany, and in 1968, it introduced the controversial “state of emergency” laws (which lifted postal secrecy, permitted the deployment of the army, and limited other civil liberties). From 1972 onward, the state barred communists and other leftists from jobs in the civil service. Suppression of leftist politics continued in the subsequent decades, with crackdowns on anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s and the famous “Munich police encirclements” at the 1992 G7 summit, which resulted in almost five hundred arrests.

Leftist Kurds have been treated as doubly suspect — painted with the communist brush and tarred as potential “foreign terrorists.” Their persecution in Germany began in 1988, when nineteen Kurdish activists were arrested in Düsseldorf and put on trial. Already, the country’s attorney general had declared the PKK (founded in 1978 to push for Kurdish rights) the “main enemy of Germany’s internal security.” It adopted Turkey’s definition of terrorism out of a desire to maintain its close relationship with Ankara.

Kurds began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1990s, fleeing persecution in Turkey. Since the 1980 military coup in Turkey, tens of thousands of political activists had been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, and after the PKK launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state in 1984, seeking liberation for the long-oppressed Kurds, the army began to destroy thousands of Kurdish villages in the east of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to flee.

Germany had made Turkey’s war on the Kurds possible in the first place, supplying the country with extensive arms and financial aid. Yet on their arrival in the FRG, Kurdish refugees were met with racism from police, civil servants, and other officials. German policemen stormed the homes of countless Kurdish families with weapons drawn, only to confiscate pictures of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

They left behind not only numerous traumatized children, who still dream of doors being kicked in, but also many who wondered why they had come to Germany in the first place — they had already been subjected to similar searches and arrests in Turkey. In 1994, German police even shot a sixteen-year-old Kurd named Halim Dener in Hanover for putting up political posters. Dener had just fled Northern Kurdistan (Eastern Turkey), where he had been tortured and his family’s village had been razed by the Turkish military.

The southern state of Bavaria, where the Right has long-standing ties to Turkish fascists, has been particularly hostile toward Kurds. In 1978, Franz Josef Strauß, the chairman of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, met with Alparslan Türkeş, founder of the fascistic Party of the National Movement, and promised his support. Türkeş’s affinity for Adolf Hitler apparently wasn’t a problem: their shared anti-communism united them in the fight against progressive movements.

The Repression Today

What began thirty years ago has not yet abated. Today, repression against Kurds extends to all areas of life, in the political sphere and beyond. Here’s just a sample of the types of persecution Kurdish activists face, whether or not they have any ties to the PKK.

  • Prosecution and Imprisonment:

Individual Kurdish activists have been repeatedly sentenced to prison in Germany. Currently, six people are being held in pre-trial detention, and two are languishing in prison. Since 1993, more than 180 trials have been prosecuted against alleged PKK activists, and since 2010, thirty people have been charged and sentenced to a total of more than sixty-one years in prison.

The German state bases its charges on a section of the criminal code dealing with the “formation of terrorist groups.” If officials can’t obtain a prison sentence, they usually secure a ban on participating in political activities, including demonstrations and even meetings of Kurdish associations. Those convicted are also barred from leaving the district in which they are registered and must report regularly to the police.

Separately, hundreds of people have been tried for displaying symbols of the Kurdish freedom movement at demonstrations or on the internet. Carrying a photo of Abdullah Öcalan can be grounds for putting someone on trial — German courts consider showing his likeness an act of support for a “terrorist organization.” Often, the trials are preceded by house searches that are less about collecting evidence than intimidating activists.

The repression also ensnares non-Kurds. In Munich, for example, Claus Schreer, an eighty-one-year-old peace activist and communist, is currently in the dock for displaying a picture of Öcalan. Hundreds of others are facing investigations and trials, especially in Bavaria, for having the audacity to show symbols associated with the YPG and the YPJ, the Kurdish militias that fought ISIS.

  • Restrictions on Art and Literature

Many Kurdish cultural events in Germany are now verboten. Their alleged crime: promoting a “terrorist organization.” The ban now even covers simple art exhibitions. In Nuremberg last December, a picture from a photo exhibition on everyday life in Northern Syria, also known as Rojava, was removed at the behest of the city authorities because two pictures of Öcalan were visible in the background.

In February 2019, the book publisher Mezopotamia and the music production company Mir were also banned. Thousands of books were seized, including Kurdish children’s books and language books, as well as works by Noam Chomsky, John Steinbeck, and many others translated into Kurdish. The music archive of Mir, which contained tens of thousands of Kurdish songs, was confiscated as well.

  • Digital Surveillance

Every day, German authorities monitor the social media profiles of thousands of Kurdish activists and supporters. Some police departments have officers specifically devoted to the task. If they find Kurdish symbols considered illegal, they launch an investigation. Thousands of these cases have likely been filed in the last three years alone.

The state’s surveillance and prosecution is complemented by Facebook’s own policies, which censor the content of the Kurdish freedom movement, block accounts, delete users, and cooperate with the authorities in Turkey and elsewhere to buttress state prosecution.

  • Attacks on Residence Rights

One popular way for German authorities to enforce political conformity among Kurdish activists is to raise the specter of deportation — even though some of them would face torture, imprisonment, and potentially death if they were booted from the country. At other times, the authorities simple change a person’s residence status without notice — forcing them, for instance, to apply for an extension every few months, always with the fear of receiving a negative decision and being deported.

Last summer in Nuremberg, the thirty-six-year-old Kurd Murat Akgül, who migrated to Germany as a child, was sent back to Turkey because he was active in the local Kurdish association and had carried YPG flags at demonstrations. It was only by a lucky coincidence that he was not immediately imprisoned in Turkey. The father of four then fled back to Germany, where he was promptly detained for more than two weeks. It is still unclear whether he will be permitted to stay, even though his life could hang in the balance. The trial against him, as with so many others, is still ongoing.

  • Denial of Citizenship:

Often, it is not enough to have lived in Germany for decades or to have been born in the country to escape the tentacles of the repressive state. In so-called security talks, Kurdish immigrants and their children, most of whom were born in Germany, are forced to provide information about their attitude toward the Kurdish freedom movement. In many cases, citizenship is refused if authorities discern “support of a terrorist organization,” regardless of whether the children live, study, and work in Germany and are, in the conservative sense of the word, “integrated.”

Zozan G

The case of Zozan G, a politically active Kurd from North Rhine–Westphalia and the mother of five children aged four to fifteen, is both representative of the repression the Kurdish movement faces and a potentially new front in the war against Kurdish activism.

The German state is claiming that Zozan “indoctrinates her children with PKK propaganda” and makes them take part in political actions. Although the youth welfare office could not identify any situation Zozan had put her children in that might endanger them, the state security police and the domestic secret service have pressed for punitive action, intent on setting an example.

Initially, the authorities were only targeting Zozan’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Lorin G, who attended political demonstrations last year to support Kurdish hunger strikers. But last November, the proceedings were extended to all five children after Zozan refused to back down and continued attending (legal) political demonstrations.

In January, the court decided that it would not take any action against Zozan for the time being. Yet it also issued a “declaration of commitment,” stating that the children must go to school regularly, that they must not participate in forbidden gatherings, and that they must follow the law when attending meetings. (They were already doing all of these things.) Zozan was also ordered to inform the children about the background and effects of the PKK ban in Germany (as if they hadn’t already experienced this for themselves, having been targeted by state security and dragged into court.)

For now, at least, it looks like Zozan has been let off. But her case could set a startling new precedent, with the scope of state repression expanding ever wider into the lives of politically active Kurds.

A Turkish-German Alliance?

What are the prospects for resisting this repression?

Part of the difficulty of doing so is that the anti-Kurdish actions are rooted in geopolitical calculations. Turkey, a long-standing ally of Germany, is seen as a bulwark against Russia (and previously the Soviet Union). Turkey’s 2016 refugee agreement with the European Union, which rerouted many migrants through Turkey and led to the suffering and death of thousands, also strengthened German-Turkish relations.

And Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows how to take advantage of the country’s position. When the autocratic leader launched a war of aggression last October against the Kurdish-governed area in Northern Syria, contrary to international law, it was mainly Germany that prevented Europe-wide sanctions against the incursion. In January, Angela Merkel announced that Germany would financially support Turkey in building accommodations in the Turkish-occupied parts of Northern Syria.

There are also economic interests at work: more than seven thousand German companies are active in Turkey. One example is Siemens, which is helping renew the Turkish rail network — the Berlin-Baghdad Railway 2.0, so to speak. Volume of orders: €35 billion.

For all these reasons, it is easy to see why the Federal Republic massively restricts Kurdish rights and cracks down on the Kurdish freedom movement. Maintaining economic and political relations is simply too important to get hung up on trivial things like democracy and human rights. Even though Kurdish children are standing in their rooms early in the morning in front of heavily armed policemen. Even if book publishers are banned. Even if a mother could lose custody of her children. Whenever German-Turkish state visits to Ankara or Berlin are imminent, the repressive measures against Kurds inevitably ramp up.

Still, in spite of the suppression of Kurdish activists, solidarity persists. During the G20 protests in Hamburg in 2017, five thousand YPG/YPJ pennants were distributed and carried by people of all political persuasions. Thousands wore the symbols of the defenders of Rojava, making criminal prosecution impossible through this act of collective civil disobedience. In doing so, they defiantly recognized the Kurdish left and their struggle — the very thing the German state wishes to suppress.

Thus, what the sociologist Stephan Lessenich calls the social practice of solidarity — the collective act of standing up for shared interests — has come into view. And this is for two reasons: First, the theoretical and practical perspectives of the Kurdish freedom movement should serve as an egalitarian touchstone for debate and practice on the Western left. And second, non-Kurdish supporters defend their own fundamental freedoms when they stand alongside their Kurdish comrades. For in the past, restrictions on basic rights have often been tried out on political and ethnic minorities before being transferred to the majority society. Solidarity with people like Zozan G and Murat Akgül ultimately means solidarity with oneself and the social struggles not just in Germany or Kurdistan, but all over the world.