On Sunday, February 24, after two years, nine months, and 22 days in jail, the Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan was finally released from the Tarsus Closed Women’s Prison in south-eastern Turkey.
In 2017, a digital tablet drawing Doğan made depicting the destruction by Turkish security forces of the Kurdish City of Mardin in the Nusaybin district landed her in prison over charges of propaganda. The painting portrays Turkish military operations that targeted approximately 30 towns and neighborhoods and displaced between 355,000 and 500,000 people, mostly of Kurdish origin. The work, based on an official photograph of these events distributed by the Turkish military, shows the heavy toll inflicted upon Nusaybin, a predominately Kurdish area of Turkey. For the painting, Doğan was charged and subsequently spent over two years in prison.
Her release is being celebrated by many across the spectrums of culture and wider civil society at large, including PEN America, Freemuse, Ai Weiwei, and Banksy (who, in March 2018, painted a mural in New York City raising awareness about the imprisoned journalist).
Upon her release yesterday, Doğan doubled down on her commitment to journalism and art, using her release to express solidarity with other Kurdish political prisoners who remain locked down in Turkish prisons.
“It is my field of work, of struggle. I have no excuse,” Doğan said in a video published by Jin News only minutes after her release. “I do not have the right nor the pretext to do nothing, I must act.”
Prior to her arrest, Doğan worked as editor at the Jin News Agency (JINHA), an organization run by women repeatedly targeted by the Turkish government for covering Kurdish issues in the region. The two-minute video of her release features a smiling Doğan clearly keen on experiencing freedom for the first time in years.
Describing her time in jail, Doğan spoke of dark times. She spoke of how she sometimes found herself without even pencil to draw or write. “It often happens we do not even eat,” she said, but says that her commitment to art and activism remains strong despite these challenges.
Referencing the conditions in Tarsus prison, where she served most of her time after being transferred from a jail in Diyarbakir, she said morale and the dynamics inside the jail were difficult for many of the women to bear. Many of the women inside are mothers, she said, but “each expresses her own existence by different means.” Upon her release she declared her commitment to fighting for feminist issues both within greater Kurdistan and beyond, using her art and journalism to advance issues critical to her community.
“I had to continue drawing. It’s that simple. There was nothing else that I could do to express my existence.”
In the video, she mentions other journalists who remain in detention today, including Nedim Türfent, who was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on terrorism charges in December 2018, and Meltem Oktay, sentenced in 2017 to four years in prison on charges of producing propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party.
Doğan believes that her release should be used to draw attention to the hundreds of other Kurdish artists and journalists who remain in prison, not having been given the Banksy treatment.
Many of them, according to the French-language web magazine Kedistan, which often focuses on Kurdish issues and was one of the most vocal outlets vying for Doğan’s release, the issue now is to focus on the many other Kurdish activists, journalists, and artists who remain in prison.
During her time in jail, Doğan sent several drawings, done, as usual, within the constraints of her prison environment. She drew a portrait of another inmate, Mother Sisê, alongside the two-year-old baby of another inmate, Dersim, who is incarcerated with her condemned mother. Sisê, at 80, is a villager from the town of Varto, in the municipality of Muş, who despite having never left the village for over 15 years was picked up and charged during a raid in 2016, with being a “member of a terrorist organization” (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Doğan used her release to draw attention to Sisê’s health and those of other inmates that are often placed in confinement on trumped up, overzealous charges, left to languish for years in jail without leniency of any kind.
“Outside, I will continue to be with you, it’s my debt to you,” Doğan affirmed.