For most of the people walking past on the leafy boulevard on their way to the public gardens, the world of the men and women taking part in the Vigil for Öcalan would seem incomprehensibly alien. Some of those men and women have spent years in Turkish prisons facing unimaginable treatments. Others have lost close relations at the hands of the Turkish military. Many are unable to travel back to Turkey and may never again meet elderly parents face to face. Sidar Amedi arrived in Strasbourg as a refugee from Turkey two years ago, and has become a regular face at the Vigil. In this company, his extraordinary story becomes more ordinary. It is a personal microcosm of the Kurdish predicament, and gives a better idea of what it means to be a Kurd than can be found from any number of textbooks.
Sidar learnt his politics young. In the turbulent days before Turkey’s 1980 coup, even a primary school pupil could not escape clashes with fascists, and he was hurt aged only seven or eight. After the coup, his brother became involved in student struggles at the university, and taught young Sidar about Kurdish patriotism and socialism and music. His other major inspiration was the songs of Şivan Perwer. Sidar is a musician.
In 1991, as a 20-year-old activist in the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Sidar joined 100,000 people at the funeral of Vedat Aydın, the Kurdish politician and leader of the Peoples Labour Party (HEP), whose severely tortured body was found two days after his abduction by the Turkish deep state. Aydın’s fatal sin, in the eyes of the state, was his insistence on using Kurdish. The funeral’s followers were met with automatic weapons, killing over twenty people. Sidar was injured in the crush, but the bigger impact was on his mind. He was confirmed in his commitment to the Movement.
The 1990s was an especially dangerous time to be a politically involved Kurd. Sidar was active in the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre in Diyarbakir, mostly with music, until he was detained in September 1993 and sentenced for three years nine months. After his released he was imprisoned again for another year.
When finally freed, he continued with his music and his politics – and of course making Kurdish music is itself a form of politics – but was detained again in 2011. This time he was one of the hundreds of people accused of aiding the PKK as part of the KCK case, which is still going through the courts.
Sidar had become a marked man, along with his family. Also in 2011, two of his sons, who were carrying some fireworks, were accused of planning a bomb attack. The older one, then aged thirteen, was held in prison for one and a half years. The younger, Mazlum, then eleven, was released after five days. Because they were minors their final sentences were converted to a fine, but this didn’t stop them from being tortured in prison.
For Mazlum, and for his family too, this was the first step into a nightmare. Mazlum İçli is now famous as the boy who has been sentenced for life without parole for a murder that all the evidence proves he did not commit, in order to please the Turkish government.
Mazlum’s case is tied to the Kobanê Case, which is a key piece in the Turkish Government’s attempted destruction of the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In 2014, the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobanê, just over the border in Syria, was under siege from ISIS and no one was coming to their aid – least of all Turkey whose only action was to prevent Kurdish volunteers crossing into Syria, although it had been made it easy for people going to join ISIS. Across the world, Kurds were protesting in support of Kobanê, and in Turkey the HDP issued a tweet calling people to come into the streets. The anti-ISIS protestors were met by armed security forces and violent counter protestors, especially from Hüda Par, the far-right Kurdish Islamist group whose predecessor was responsible for hundreds of deaths in the 1990s. In the resulting struggle, up to fifty people lost their lives. The majority were supporters of the HDP, but among the dead were four members of Hüda Par, including one, Yasin Börü, who was only 16. In an argument that has been thoroughly dismantled by the European Court of Human Rights, the people who wrote and shared that HDP tweet are being held responsible for all these deaths, as well as being accused of the usual crime of disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state. 108 people are on trial, and 36, including many leading members of the HDP, could face life imprisonment without parole.
Mazlum, together with others, has been found guilty of the murder of Yasin Börü and the other Hüda Par members. The Kobanê case needed a convicted murderer with connections to the Kurdish Freedom Movement. The fact that, at the time the crime was committed, Mazlum was clearly and provably 140km from Diyarbakir playing music for a wedding has not been allowed to get in the way of his conviction. The prosecution was based on the evidence of a secret witness who was shown photographs of people with a police record, and picked out Mazlum – and who subsequently denied his witness statement. If the court were to reject this witness that would also raise a question mark over other convictions. This week, Turkey’s Court of Cassation approved the verdict.
At one point in the long legal process, Sidar’s lawyer called to say that Mazlum had been found innocent and would be released. Sidar had already bought an airline ticket when the lawyer phoned again an hour later. As soon as the court had ordered a stay of execution, the prosecutor, who had earlier called for Mazlum’s release, had appealed the decision. The signs of political intervention from above were blatant.
When Mazlum, then 14, was detained for the murder, he was tortured in front of his father. The next day, when he was in detention, his appendix burst and he had to have an emergency operation. Citing ‘security reasons’ the authorities moved Mazlum’s case to Ankara, 900 km away from his family. He spent a year and a half in solitary confinement, with his family only able to see him twice in all that time, and then was sent even further away, to Silivri Prison outside Istanbul.
Because of his son’s case, and his own high profile, Sidar became a target for Hüda Par mobsters. In 2018, after they attacked his office, he found 98 bullets. Luckily, he had not been inside. His other businesses and shops were attacked and set on fire, and when he tried to put out the flames he was prevented by the police.
In 2019 he was detained again for shares on social media, and given a five-year suspended sentence. With the KCK case still hanging over him, Sidar’s lawyers advised that he would never be free in Turkey. Still reluctant to leave his country, he visited Mazlum in prison, who told him: They will always bother you. Go to Rojava or Europe and continue the struggle there.
And that is what he did, as a most reluctant immigrant. He told me that he would swap a year in Europe for a day in Diyarbakir. Now no community event in Strasbourg is complete without Sidar’s music; and among his many roles he is often to be found helping with the organisation of the Öcalan Vigil. As he recounted his own extraordinary ordinary story to me over tea outside the stone pavilion that the vigil has made its base, he emphasised: Öcalan succeeded in making the Kurdish people aware of their own identity and showing them the way to freedom with his struggle.
Öcalan is at the centre of the Kurdish struggle. As Sidar’s life story demonstrates, this struggle is yet to achieve physical freedom for Turkey’s Kurds, but it has freed Kurds from the colonial mindset and enabled them to create a movement that has rekindled faith in a better world.