These are the words of “the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” quoted by civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
24 February 2019: After being sentenced to two years, nine months and 22 days in a Turkish prison – following the merciless assault by the Turkish regime (along with the endless punitive curfews it imposed) on northern Kurdistan following the implosion of the peace process in the summer of 2015 – Kurdish writer and painter, Zehra Doğan has finally been released, walking free from Tarsus Closed Women’s Prison on the 24 February.
Zehra Doğan is from Diyarbakır (Amed) in Northern Kurdistan. During the Turkish military assault on the Kurdish communities in the south-east, she lived in and reported for Jinha from Nusaybin near the Syrian border. Despite the Turkish government declaring a curfew in Nusaybin she continued to work and report from the border town.
Eventually arrested under the now-usual charges of “membership in a terrorist organization” and “terrorist propaganda”, Zehra Doğan was first detained on 21 July 2016 and eventually jailed on June 12, 2017, finally, for sharing her now-famous painting on social media and reporting on the concerns of a 10 year old girl, Elif Akboğa from Nusabyn, in the besieged Kurdish province of Mardin.
Elif Akboğa (22 December, 2015) :
“We are hearing gun fires right now. When the fires intensify we run to our homes. When the tanks go away we take to the street and make noise for protest. I think we are right. I know that our voices will be heard one day.”
…the words of a 10 year old `Kurdish “terrorist”, responding to the vicious Turkish military assault on Nusaybin, with a call to all children…
As regards to her painting (below) of the Turkish photograph of Nusaybin (above) devastated after its visit by the Turkish military… she pointed out to the Judge at her trial:
“They asked me why did you depict the Turkish flag on these destroyed buildings, and sentenced me to two years and 10 months. Whereas, they are the ones who took the photograph. I only painted it,” she tweeted after the Court ruling.
“I only painted it…” This was the photograph of a Nusaybin with Turkish flags hung on destroyed buildings.
Sent to Diyarbakır Prison she was later transferred to the distant Tarsus Maximum Security Prison after winning the IWMF (the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation) Courage in Journalism award.
In the infamous Diyarbakır Type E Prison, she was not allowed to draw or paint pictures using crayons. “In response, Doğan produced paint by using plant roots in the prison as well as menstruation blood.
“Being sent to Tarsus Prison in Mersin afterwards, Doğan also drew the pictures of ill prisoner Sise Bingöl and two-year-old baby Dersim, with whom she was staying in the same ward.” ‘Grandma’ Sise, is 85 years old, and I guess, serving time for “terrorist” charges, likewise two-year old Dersim, probably for associating with Kurdish terrorists?
Along with an international campaign for her release, Zehra Doğan’s situation was brought to the attention of the world by the celebrity-muralist Banksy protesting her conviction: “She is convicted to 2 years 9 months and 22 days for painting this picture” and posted his graphic showing Doğan behind bars with the slogan “Free Zehra Dogan”
Banksy’s eye catching murals however cannot match the sharpness of the writer’s words:
Zehra Doğan (in her letter to the to the European Parliament):
“I remembered the famous quote of Pablo Picasso when the police asked me if I made the painting that depicts the destroyed city center of Nusaybin: A Nazi-officer asked him if he had made the painting of Guernica and Picasso replied ‘No, you did’. Even the Nazi regime didn’t imprison Picasso, but the Erdoğan regime imprisoned me…I tried to stop the guns that are pointing at my people, with my painting brush and pen. As I’m regarded as a ‘terrorist’ by the regime, they must be regarding brushes and pens as weapons. It was the same President Erdoğan who defined the book of Ahmet Sik as ‘more dangerous than a bomb’ during his speech in 2011 at the Council of Europe while defending their imprisonment. I may be imprisoned now but don’t forget that I still have my brush and my pen!“
“Membership in a terrorist organization” and “terrorist propaganda”- ? – Give me a fu**ing break!
“PKK terrorist propaganda” …seems to be the litany now in Turkey – (“Use of this poorly-defined charge has grown again in recent years with President Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies and ever-tougher line on the Kurdish issue.” Reporters without Borders) – from what is turning out to be the most redundant of authoritarian regimes, where to be considered by the regime to be thinking differently becomes a crime against the status quo of Turkish President and Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his right wing nationalist and Islamist allies. In this dark-looking-glass world, political opposition is seen as an act of criminal terrorism or and saying something the regime doesn’t like, “terrorist propaganda”.
This, of course, from the politician whose most famous saying in the past now rings true: “Democracy is like a tram; you get off when you have reached your destination.”
Yes, Mr. President, and just as you say, it would appear that Turkey has almost reached the end of the line (without the music, sadly)?
“In this country, dark as night, where all of our rights have been scratched out with the red of blood, I already knew that I would be imprisoned. I want to repeat Picasso’s teaching: do you really think that a painter is just someone who uses her brush to paint bugs and flowers? No artist turns her back on society; a painter needs to use her paintbrush as a weapon against oppressors.” (Zehra Doğan’s letter to Jinha from her prison cell)
In the midst of this unfolding chaos, Zehra Doğan worked as a reporter and editor for JİNHA (Turkey’s first women’s news agency), from 2012 until its forcible closure in 2016 under Statutory Decree No. 675 (forcibly closed along with 180 other media outlets in the wake of the failed coup)…. resulting in the charge of “terrorist propaganda” for her work as a journalist who remained in Nusaybin whilst under siege by the `Turkish military:
“Like other journalists in the region, I narrowly escaped death in many situations. I was targeted by snipers once, my home was shelled and raked by automatic weapons on the others. I received many threats and insults on social media. And in the end I was arrested…” (from a letter she wrote from her prison cell to the European Parliament)
Finally reporting her conversation with the 10-year-old child in their besieged city in December, 2015 was enough to convince the Turkish Court that she was a “terrorist” engaged in “terrorist propaganda”…
“Zehra spoke with a child who was affected by the clashes in Nusaybin…. According to the court, five sentences spoken by the child meant that Zehra was making “terrorist propaganda”. This is the excerpt from the court’s decision:
“Zehra Doğan published a news story on 22 December, 2015 from Nusaybin, where there were intense attacks. [This story] included the call of 10-year-old old Elif Akboğa to all children:
‘We are hearing gun fires right now. When the fires intensify we run to our homes. When the tanks go away we take to the street and make noise for protest. I think we are right. I know that our voices will be heard one day.’”
The court’s response was curt, to say the least:
“This publication tries to justify the PKK terrorist organization’s barricade and trench policy by showing that it is a legitimate resistance.”
As Global Rights reported all those weeks, months and years ago, Zehra Doğan had struggled to provide coverage from a Nusaybin under siege by the might of NATO’s second largest war machine. In doing so she obviously offended, with both paint brush and pen (and her indomitable Kurdish spirit) the might of this massive war machine that we see now unashamedly flexing its belligerent muscles with its build up on the borders of Rojava – the Democratic Federation Northern Syria…
A tribute to the work of the pen being mightier than the sword, Mr. President..?
“I was penalized because of ridiculous reasons that are hard to believe. For a painting in which I depicted the destruction in the town of Nusaybin. The judge gave me a prison sentence and said: “By painting the Turkish flag on the destroyed walls of Nusaybin, the propaganda of the (terrorist) organisation was made”. I was also penalized because of a news story I wrote about a 10-year-old child in Nusaybin. Although I published a video showing what the child was saying, I was penalized as if I was the one saying what the child had said. It wasn’t me that shot the photo, they did, and it was distributed by the government media. But I was penalized for painting that photograph. With this penalty, in essence they accepted that shooting victory photos by hanging Turkish flags on the walls of the destroyed houses is inhumane and must be punished. But they punished the wrong actor: Not the one who destroyed the town, not the one who posed, not the one who shot the photo but the one who painted the photo. They made this painting, not me. But today I’m the one who’s penalized. My penalty will most probably be approved by the higher court in one month and I’ll be taken to prison. But in the future, they’ll be the ones who are going to be condemned. I’ll try to expose and condemn this decision, which is taking away my freedom of speech…” (Global Rights)
While awaiting sentencing she was held in the E Type Closed Prison in Mardin, an experience she wrote about:
“Apart from the arbitrary naked searches in the police office, I experienced verbal harassments and heavy insults by the police and special forces. I was asked these questions non-stop: ‘Why are you practicing journalism? What is your purpose in painting? Are you getting orders from PKK?’”
Abuse nor imprisonment in the variety of Turkish detention centres did not curtail her creative spirit, nonetheless. She continued to paint and write while incarcerated, being deprived of materials by the prison regime, the artist “began using food and even her own blood as paint and letters, milk cartons or newspapers as her canvas.” Along with her fellow prisoners she also produced an imprisoned-newspaper (Özgür Gündem Zindan – Free Agenda Dungeon) …thus proving to the less than understanding minions of these dark places (both of body and mind): that you can lock up a free person’s body – but not their spirit…
“…a painter needs to use her paintbrush as a weapon against oppressors,”
Speaking to Bianet, (the independent Turkish press agency based in Istanbul) after her release, she said,
“I was waiting for the day when my sentence would come to an end, I am very happy. I am sad that I have left my friends inside. I extend my thanks to every single person who supported me during this process.
“While I was leaving the prison, the voices of children and their mothers were coming behind the door. They were calling after me and said, ‘Zehra, Zehra, you are going to see the trees, children and birds now. Zehra, draw their pictures and send them to us’.”
The Promised Land?
Speaking after her release, Zehra Doğan also drew attention to the hunger strikers still behind bars in Turkey. “There are over 300 Kurdish political prisoners who are involved in an indefinite hunger strike in a protest led by pro-Kurdish MP Leyla Güven which has nearly reached its fourth month. The protests aim to end the policy of isolation and the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader, according to Ahval.”
Zehra Doğan, Kurd (from Diyarbakir), writer, painter, creative spirit and free-person right now, has thus ‘served her time’ and in doing so is worthy of another freedom fighter’s cry of pain and victory as well as his encouragement to us all of a much needed vision of the “promised land”:
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,
“Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (Martin Luther King, Jn. “I Have a Dream”)
The State of Turkey
Zehra Doğan, who has been nominated for the Index on Censorship 2019 Freedom of Expression Arts Award, comes out to a Turkey with its Kurdish population now permanently under siege and its war machine well oiled and prepared to continue the madness and bloodshed that the people of this region have seen all too much of…
…But like all fires… one day, this one, also, will have to burn out. Hundreds of jailed Kurdish activists know this. Along with their dead.
It is only then that the “humanity” that we will somehow collectively create, will be born from the work and struggle of those who brought it into being by standing up to and resisting the brutality and the arrogance of dictatorship with its contempt for freedom, for democracy, for justice, equality and the rights of men, women and children to live in peace, whoever or wherever they are…
Martin Luther King Jr.
“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”
And what better a “promised land” than a “Kurdistan” we already see in the making, despite both the dangers and the enemies that surround it on all sides, and where all people, races, tribes, religions and beliefs are respected and allowed to co-exist with justice and equality?
Zehra Doğan was released on February 24, 2014.
Welcome home Zehra Doğan:
you are going to see the trees, children and birds now.
Zehra, draw their pictures
and send them to us...”
…And welcome to the Kurdish revolution!
Image (Photograph) “fair use”
Image (painting) “fair use”
Copy of painting from letter: To the attention of: High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Mrs Federica Mogherini…at: http://www.kedistan.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Letter-to-Mogherini_Free-Zehra-Doğan .pdf
I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
Banksy Paints Large Mural in Protest of Imprisonment of Zehra Dogan
Interview “141” Zehra Doğan
‘Oldest and Youngest Fellow Inmates’
Journalist and artist Zehra Doğan, who has been imprisoned since June 2017, has drawn pictures of Sise Bingöl (86) and toddler Dersim (2).
Global Rights Links
Turkey – Purge in Kurdistan Continues: Artist and Journalist Zehra Doğan Brought to Court (12 Dec 2016)
Zehra Doğan Sentenced! (30 March, 2017)
Letter to the European Commission