The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

America's ‘War on Terrorâ€TM Hits Café Gulistan

The Detention of Ibrahim Parlak

by Kari Lydersen

A Kurdish American restaranteur who is revered by his community, is being held without bail by the US government, apparently for having been "re-convicted" of a 1988 crime allegedly committed in Turkey.

Chicago; Aug. 30, 2004 – Ibrahim Parlak’s customers and friends know him as the gentle, hard-working Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who runs Café Gulistan in the placid lakeside town of Harbert, Michigan. Before he was incarcerated by US authorities and threatened with deportation, which could lead to political persecution back in Turkey, Parlak spent long hours doing everything from cooking falafels and hummus to painting walls and ceilings to planting flowers and herbs in the garden out front.

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The café has been a local institution for a decade, drawing loyal long-time residents of the nearby farming community and well-off Chicagoans with vacation beach houses.

Parlak immigrated to the Midwest in 1991 as a political refugee from Turkey, where he was persecuted for his work promoting Kurdish cultural identity in a country where until recently even speaking Kurdish was grounds for lengthy imprisonment.

Like many immigrants, Parlak was interviewed extensively after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was not found to have any questionable links, and his friends say that like most people who know him, the FBI agent with whom he had most contact became fond of him and the two had a friendly relationship. So when the agent asked Parlak to come to the nearest FBI office on July 29, he was not overly concerned.

But later that day, he found himself in immigration detention facing possible deportation to Turkey, a country with a dismal human rights record and a reputation for repressing its Kurdish population, especially activists like Parlak.

At Parlak’s initial August 10 bond hearing in Detroit, an immigration judge scolded prosecutors for presenting her a poorly translated version of the Turkish government document. His case was continued, and Parlak was ordered detained without bond on the grounds he constitutes a flight risk.

It appears that an administrative document recently sent from a Turkish state security court relating to Parlak’s past imprisonment raised a red flag with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials because it describes Parlak as an administrator of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that since 1997 has been on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Parlak maintains that although he had some connections with the group, he was never a member because he didn’t agree with some of their tactics.

His supporters also note that the PKK was not designated a terrorist group by the US until six years after Parlak moved to the US. They say the March correspondence from Turkey does not include any new information, only facts that were already revealed in Parlak’s successful application for political asylum, which he received in 1992.

"The PKK was the largest group at the time, so he worked with them to help accomplish his own goals, to get resources and funds," said Parlak’s friend Martin Dzuris, a Czech native who says he can relate to Parlak’s experience in Turkey since he escaped an oppressive regime in his own country. "But he never joined the PKK because he didn’t agree with some of their tactics."

Parlak grew up in a rural area in eastern Turkey, one of ten children in a farming family.

Parlak's supporters also note that the PKK was not designated a terrorist group by the US until six years after he moved to the US.

"They grew watermelon and garbanzo beans," said Michelle Gazzolo, the mother of Parlak’s seven year-old daughter Livia, who is a US citizen. "He would talk about how he used to like sitting under a tree and eating watermelons and cheese."

Parlak never learned the Kurdish language or much about Kurdish culture growing up. There are about 25 to 30 million Kurds living in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, who have long been pushing for varying degrees of autonomy or independence.

The Turkish government was so intent on crushing the idea of an independent Kurdistan and forcing Kurds to assimilate that it made speaking the Kurdish language or practicing Kurdish culture a crime punishable by imprisonment and even death. In 1994, four Turkish former lawmakers, including Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman to be elected to parliament, were sentenced to prison terms for alleged membership in the PKK. Zana had outraged the government when she spoke Kurdish, calling for a united and democratic Turkey, during her swearing-in ceremony in 1991.

About 30,000 Kurds were killed during skirmishes between the PKK and the US-backed Turkish military in the 1980s and 1990s.

Although Turkey has made gestures to improve its human rights record in the past few years to obtain European Union membership, even the US State Department admits that torture and other human rights violations in the country are still rampant, especially against Kurdish activists.

"Some members of the security forces continued to torture, beat, and otherwise abuse persons regularly," says a February2004 report from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, an agency of the State Department. "Leftists and Kurdish rights activists were more likely than others to suffer torture. Despite the Government's cooperation with unscheduled foreign inspection teams, public pledges by successive governments to end the practice, and initiatives to address the problem, widespread reports of torture continued, particularly in the southeast."

Some have speculated that the US is detaining Parlak as part of an effort to improve relations with Turkey, a key ally in the conflict in Iraq. In a January 2004 press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher pledged to help the Turkish government expel PKK members from refugee camps and other areas near the Turkey-Iraq border.

"We continue to work against the PKK to make sure they can't find any haven in northern Iraq," Boucher said in the briefing. "There is no place for the PKK in Iraq."

Though he declined to provide details, Boucher said the US government had "worked out an action plan with the Turkish government to… subdue the terrorist threat that
might exist in this area" involving "all the elements of state power, law enforcement, security, finance, and directed with both of us taking all the steps that we can."

As a student in Turkey, Parlak was arrested and beaten for attending a peaceful demonstration advocating Kurdish rights. As his friends recount, after a stint in jail, Parlak fled the country for West Germany, where he began to learn the Kurdish language and more about Kurdish culture. He spent the next few years in various western European countries including Switzerland and France, speaking about Kurdish rights and organizing Kurdish cook-outs, dances and other cultural events.

When his Turkish passport expired he said he went to a Turkish consulate abroad to try to renew it, but was denied. So when he decided to re-enter Turkey in 1988 to do advocacy work in his homeland, he had to enter illegally through Syria. Dzuris says that is when Parlak ended up "at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Dzuris, who notes that he himself is proud to be a US citizen and Republican voter and doesn’t see the case as a "partisan" issue, said, "[Parlak] and his friend were looking for a place without border guards, because they didn’t want any trouble. They thought they had found a place, but then it turned out there were guards there."

According to Dzuris, Parlak says a shoot-out ensued with smugglers who were also in the area, and two Turkish border guards were killed. Parlak was arrested with a gun in his possession, which he says wasn’t loaded, and charged with aiding and abetting the PKK. He was released after about two years in prison and fled to the US where he requested and gained political asylum.

Parlak originally settled in Chicago, where he worked in restaurants and met Gazzolo. Then the two moved to Michigan, where he started Café Gulistan in Harbert in 1994 and for a few years also ran another café in Kalamazoo.

The development that apparently triggered Parlak’s recent detention was the notice from the Turkish government sent to the US government recently. According to Parlak’s attorneys, the document was meant to inform Parlak that a Turkish appeals court had revisited his sentence and changed it to a six-year sentence with four-fifths suspended. That means Parlak had still served more than the required amount, and his attorneys say the Turkish government was not asking for his return or imprisonment, but simply fulfilling an administrative duty to inform him of the ruling.

US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) officials maintain that the document says Parlak was an administrator of the PKK. A statement from the agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, says: "Ibrahim Parlak was convicted in a state security court in Malatya, Turkey on March 16, 2004 of committing terrorist actions against the Republic of Turkey by taking part in the 1988 killing of two Turkish soldiers in his capacity as group administrator of the Kurdistan Workers Party otherwise known as the PKK."

Department spokesperson Ernestine Fobbs said she could not comment further on the case. Greg Palmore, spokesperson for the Detroit office of ICE, also said he wasn’t overly familiar with the details of the case.

"I don’t know the pretenses" of his detention, said Palmore. "There are still a lot of questions about the case. There were a lot of misconceptions about why he was being held. The details will all come to light in the trial. We don’t want to release more information right now because our goal is not to taint due process."

Repeated calls to the Turkish consulate in Chicago and the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC were not returned.

At Parlak’s initial August 10 bond hearing in Detroit, an immigration judge scolded prosecutors for presenting her a poorly translated version of the Turkish government document. His case was continued, and Parlak was ordered detained without bond on the grounds he constitutes a flight risk.

His case is also complicated by a problem with his citizenship application, which has been pending for six years. Immigration officials say that Parlak lied on his application for permanent residency when he said he had never been convicted of a felony. Parlak’s lawyer Noel Saleh has told media that Parlak, who did not speak English well at the time, thought the question was whether he had been convicted of a felony in the US. His supporters note that the Immigration and Naturalization Service which has folded into the DHS has been aware of Parlak’s alleged lie for years and this is not the basis for his detention.

All in all, Parlak’s supporters say they do not believe the DHS sees him as a real threat to national security.

Dzuris points out that when the government arrested Parlak, agents did not perform the usual high profile searches and seizures of property that have come to be associated with the arrest of suspected terrorists. "They didn’t do any of that with Ibrahim. They don’t really consider him a risk."

Since Parlak’s arrest, Café Gulistan has been swamped by local well-wishers, and various homes and businesses in Harbert bear home-made signs saying "Free Ibrahim." About 50 supporters attended his first hearing, and many, including film critic Roger Ebert and novelist Andrew Greeley, have made statements on his behalf. His niece, nephew and brother have been working overtime to keep the café running in Parlak’s absence, and Gazollo said she is determined to avoid selling the café or Parlak’s home even though he has instructed her to do so if necessary.

On a sunny afternoon in August friends and neighbors sitting at the picnic tables surrounded by the hollyhocks and sunflowers Parlak had planted reflected on the way a community that never expected to be affected by the "war on terrorism" has been stung.

"It’s very distressing that someone who’s been a contributor to this society, a business owner and a taxpayer, doesn’t seem to have rights," said Gazzolo. "It’s like we’re living in a different country within our country, in a reality I never thought existed here. He was whisked away in Turkey and tortured. He came here to escape that. But now he’s been whisked away again."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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