On Friday 14 December, members of Melbourne’s Kurdish community will begin a three-day hunger strike in solidarity with thousands of Kurdish political prisoners held in Turkish prisons.

They will stand in front of the State Library in Swanston Street between the hours of 8.00 am and 10.00 pm.

The protest in particular is to highlight the plight of Abdullah Öcalan and Leyla Guven.

Öcalan, who is 70, is the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Arrested in Kenya in 1999, he is the sole prisoner in a Turkish prison on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara. Sentenced to death in 1999, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2002. In 2003, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that his 1999 trial was unfair, claiming that his defence was improperly restricted. Turkey appealed the ruling, but in 2005, the court upheld the ruling and recommended a retrial, which Turkey refused to hold.

In 2002, the PKK called off its long-running armed struggle against the Turkish state, and has worked for a peaceful solution to the dispute.

Although Australia and a number of other countries consider the PKK a terrorist organization, on November 15 last, the European Court of Justice ruled that keeping the organization on the EU list was unjustified. The EU’s member countries must respect the ruling and it casts serious doubt on the Australian ban, which was imposed at the request of Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Öcalan has not seen his lawyer since 2011, nor any member of his family since September 2016. There has been no news of his current circumstances.

The Erdoğan government has refused to engage in dialogue with the PKK and has waged a brutal, punitive war against Turkey’s Kurdish population. Thousands of Kurdish political prisoners languish in jail, among them Leyla Guven, a 54-year-old former MP for the People’s Democratic Party and former co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Society Congress. She has been on indefinite hunger strike since November 7 and there are concerns that her health is seriously deteriorating.

The Melbourne protest is even more pressing given Erdoğan’s recent declaration that a Turkish invasion of the mainly Kurdish cantons of Rojava in northern Syria is imminent. Turkish artillery has been shelling towns in Rojava for some months. In late January, Turkish forces, supported by Syrian Islamist militias, invaded the Kurdish town of Afrin in eastern Rojava. The invaders subsequently expelled the town’s Kurdish population and replaced them with Arabs from elsewhere in Syria. Erdoğan’s aggression will also take pressure off ISIS, which has been steadily pushed back by Kurdish forces since the lifting of the siege of Kobanê in early 2015. Erdoğan has on, reliable information, aided and abetted ISIS since its formation.

Professor John Tully  is Honorary  Professor/Educator, PhD, College of Arts and Education, Victoria University