The government claims that the KCM has links with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Their actual crimes consist of organising demonstrations and taking part in strikes.

Eight thousand people have been arrested under this legislation over the past four years. Almost 6,000 are still in detention – including many women.

Today around 20 million Kurds live within Turkey. They do so as a result of the arbitrary carve-up of the Middle East after the first world war by Britain and France.

The new states of Iraq (British), Syria (French) and a residual Turkey all contained sizeable Kurdish minorities, as did north-west Persia (modern Iran), another British dependency.

In drawing the boundaries Britain’s negotiators paid a great deal of attention to the location of oil – but none at all to the national rights of Kurds who became the world’s largest ethnic grouping denied the right of either statehood or regional autonomy.

By far the biggest proportion of Kurds lived in Turkey where governments have pursued a policy of “national” assimilation with varying degrees of ruthlessness for the past 90 years.

It remains an offence under the Turkish constitution for any official to refer to the entity of Kurdistan or for the Kurdish language to be used in any official document or transaction. State schools are not permitted to teach in Kurdish.

The Kurdish population has responded with a series of movements demanding independence or regional autonomy. For most of the past four decades there has been an intermittent armed struggle, periodically suspended in the hope of securing negotiations, to achieve some measure of autonomy and self-government.

The principal Kurdish organisation engaged in this struggle is the PKK. Its leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999 and sentenced to death – commuted to life imprisonment after international protest.

Ocalan’s trial, his denial of access to lawyers and his detention in solitary confinement have been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as violating three of the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Turkish authorities have responded to the Kurdish resistance with equally draconian military measures. By the mid-1990s, Human Rights Watch reports, 3,000 villages had been forcibly cleared and over 370,000 people moved. Aerial bombings were frequent. Targeted assassinations by the Turkish authorities ran into thousands.

Between 1999 and 2004 the PKK declared a ceasefire and in 2006 Ocalan initiated a bid for a dialogue with the government to secure limited autonomy for Kurds. By 2010 he declared this attempt at dialogue “meaningless.”

Over the past two years resistance and repression have intensified. Aerial bombing has been resumed and extended across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan – on an almost daily basis. Turkish parliamentary approval for cross-border action against Syria means that the semi-autonomous Kurdish towns and cities of north-east Syria are within Turkish military sights.

Recent years have also seen attacks on any remaining civil rights. In 2009 the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) managed to elect 36 MPs to the Turkish parliament, securing a majority of votes in south-east Turkey. The BDP’s political immunity is now under threat.

The arrest of trade unionists represents a continuation of this attempt to remove any civic leadership. Our delegation witnessed at first hand police brutality when they visited Diyarbakir on July 14 and saw the break-up of a BDP demonstration in which many people including MPs were injured.

Nor is it an accident that many of those arrested are women. Kurdish society is largely secular and one in which women have always played a leading role.

It has always seen itself as culturally and ideologically distinct from the strongly patriarchal traditions of Turkish society. Over the past decade this cultural divide has widened further as a result of the increasingly overt Islamic policies of the Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) government.

As Ocalan has said, “people are not just longing for democracy. They want a democratic society without sexism.”

In Kurdistan we visited women’s advice centres which offer support to women facing both domestic abuse and increasing state antagonism to “independent” women. We also visited women’s press agency Jinha News, set up in March to ensure that women’s perspectives were reported in Kurdistan and internationally.

The political perspectives of Ocalan, outlined most recently in his 2011 Road Map to the Democratisation of Turkey, stress the importance of separating issues of identity, religion and ethnicity from that of statehood.

He now advocates a confederal solution and the creation of a democratic Turkish state that is not tied to one national or religious identity. He has, as recently as last month, called for Syria to adopt a similar form of autonomy for its Kurdish areas. Further information is available at www.freeocalan.org.

Immediately, however, international solidarity is required to ensure that the 69 union leaders on trial do not join the thousands already detained.

– The International Trade Union Confederation has issued a statement calling for representations to be made to governments, especially Nato members. Labour Start has a petition on the 69 here.

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