The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kurdish American Fights Retroactive Terrorism Charges, Deportation

by Kari Lydersen

A well-respected Kurdish immigrant defends his past against a Homeland Security Department bent on repatriating him to Turkey, where he argues he would face repercussions for having advocated Kurdish rights.

Detroit; Dec. 12, 2004 – "Why would you go into a war zone?" asked Homeland Security Department lawyer Mark Jebson, examining Ibrahim Parlak.

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"Because my people were there. They were suffering and I wanted to be with them," answered Parlak, leaning forward in the witness seat at his immigration hearing in a Detroit courtroom December 7. "What’s wrong with that?"

Jebson was apparently insinuating that Parlak, a member of Turkey’s repressed Kurdish minority who gained political asylum in the US in 1992, would not have attempted to cross illegally into Southeastern Turkey in May 1988 unless he was "a terrorist," in Jebson’s words; a member of the PKK Kurdish separatist group that was designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department in 1997, many years after Parlak’s last association with it.

Parlak, whose story The NewStandard first reported in August, maintains that as a long-time advocate of Kurdish political and cultural rights, the only way to enter the disputed area of the country he had fled years earlier would be secretly, at night, with arms for self-defense. The small group Parlak was traveling with unexpectedly encountered Turkish border guards after they had cut a fence along the Syrian border, and a shootout ensued in which two Turkish soldiers were killed. Parlak was arrested later and served about eighteen months in prison on charges of advocating Kurdish separatism and being a PKK member.

Designated Terrorist

In his closing statements Jebson called Parlak “the complete terrorist package.”

The US government is now trying to deport Parlak on the grounds that his involvement in the shootout constituted an aggravated felony, which would make him ineligible for permanent residency in the United States. Officials also say Parlak lied on his asylum and immigration forms by not disclosing that he had been arrested previously; that he was a "terrorist" member of the PKK; and that he gave material support to terrorism through his membership in the ERNK, the political wing of the armed PKK.

The ERNK’s actual role is highly disputed, though at least some of its activities appear to have provided recruitment and financial support for the PKK, which was not widely considered a terrorist group at the time Parlak was involved with the ERNK.

But an expert witness for the defense testified that designation as a terrorist entity by the United States does not necessarily mean a group is involved in terrorism. Michael Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Tech University and author of various books on Kurds who testified as the defense’s expert witness at Parlak’s hearing, told the court under cross-examination that political interests of the US government sometimes trump assessment of dissident groups’ actual activities when determining which to label as terrorists.

Jebson acknowledged this ambiguity himself in court, saying, "One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist." Nevertheless, in his closing statements Jebson called Parlak "the complete terrorist package."

His friends are horrified that he may be returned to Turkey, where Parlak says he is sure he would be in grave danger of torture, killing or other persecution.

The supporters and friends of Parlak who filled the courtroom during both days of his hearing have a far different view of the man they have come to know in the United States. They describe Parlak, who owns and runs a Middle Eastern restaurant called Café Gulistan in Southeastern Michigan, as a community and business leader; as a dedicated father to his 7-year-old daughter, Livia, herself an American citizen; as a light-hearted and devoted friend.

A local humor columnist wrote a front-page story in the Muskegon Tribune describing how he met his wife at Café Gulistan and how they celebrated their engagement and anniversary there, drinking wine with Parlak late into the night.

His friends are horrified that he may be returned to Turkey, where Parlak says he is sure he would be in grave danger of torture, killing or other persecution.

Parlak originally gained asylum because he was tortured for several weeks during his imprisonment in Turkey. His lawyers say that if he is returned to Turkey, his rights under the Convention Against Torture and other international agreements are sure to be violated. Torture and other atrocities are still known to be commonplace in Turkey, even though the country has been pushed to clean up its human rights record in hopes of obtaining European Union membership -- pressure that included forcing Turkey to disband the very court that convicted Parlak.

At the hearing, the government argued that Parlak would not be in danger upon repatriation, since Turkey is diplomatically bound to protect him.

Gunter challenged that assumption, testifying that "there is theoretical reality and there is real reality" in Turkey today, and even though torture, kidnapping and the like are banned, they continue. "The death penalty is illegal in Turkey, but they have extra-judicial executions where the government sees to it that its perceived enemies are killed," said Gunter.

Parlak’s defenders say that characterizing his membership in the ERNK as constituting material support for terrorism is also highly dubious

Amnesty International, in its January 2004 report on Turkey, noted that while Turkey has made some strides in the area of human rights, torture, "unofficial detentions," and summary executions still take place there.

Larger Implications

Meanwhile, Parlak’s case also shows the potentially broad possibility for interpreting material support of terrorism, as well as for denying asylum based retroactively on convictions in other countries.

"Under the charges the government is arguing, Nelson Mandela is a terrorist who should be arrested the next time he comes to the US," said Parlak’s attorney, Noel Salah. "[Mandela] was convicted in a legitimate court in South Africa, he served time in prison and he supported groups that the [government] called ‘terrorist’."

Additionally, there are numerous individuals living legally in the US today who are known to have committed violent acts against civilians for political aims. Just one example is Orlando Bosch, a right wing Cuban exile reportedly living in Miami, where the city has a special day named after him, even though FBI and State Department records show he was responsible for multiple terrorist acts around the world including a plane bombing that killed 73 people.

Parlak’s defenders say that characterizing his membership in the ERNK as constituting material support for terrorism is also highly dubious, since aside from its affiliation with the PKK, the group is and was the primary popular outlet for Kurdish cultural expression and rights. Gunter said there are about 25,000 to 50,000 active members of the group, plus at least 300,000 supporters who attend ERNK activities.

"Their goals were fundraising, holding cultural events and dances, popular demonstrations," said Gunter. "A whole panoply of things that would largely be called nonviolent. Many Kurds who would want to pursue their cause nonviolently would find this to be their avenue."

Parlak’s defenders ask how the members of a largely nonviolent group with hundreds of thousands of supporters in their country and significant support abroad can be validly accused of supporting terrorism.

Some also question the designation of the militant PKK as a terrorist organization in the first place, asking why a group thousands of members strong struggling in the name of a fifth of the country’s population is not classified as a party in a civil war.

They also point out that the PKK was not officially classified a terrorist organization until 1997, a decade after Parlak’s contact with the organization.

Jebson, the Homeland Security lawyer, noted that in the mid-1980s the PKK carried out several attacks on villages in which Kurdish forces killed numerous civilians.

Parlak and Gunter appeared frustrated throughout the proceedings at the government attorney’s seeming lack of understanding with regard to the reality of the conflict in Turkey. Until recently, Parlak’s people were not allowed to speak their own language or otherwise express their culture, under threat from a government fearful of their collective aspirations for an independent Kurdistan in part of what is now Turkey.

Major points used by the government to argue their case were that Parlak took photos of villages, supposedly in order to facilitate attacks on them; that he used a code name; that he attended a PKK training camp in Lebanon; and that he met PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan.

Parlak’s attorneys argued in turn that there is nothing illegal about taking photos or using code names -- they pointed out the government’s expert witness, FBI agent Robert Miranda, used a false name during his undercover work for the Air Force. They said Parlak attended the camp in order to plan for his border crossing, and that since he was a well-known advocate of Kurdish rights it would not have been unusual for him to have met Ocalan.

A decision on Parlak’s case from immigration judge Elizabeth Hacker is expected in about a month. His lawyers said they are guardedly optimistic about his prospects. Several times during the hearing, Parlak pleaded to be allowed to stay.

"This has become my country, it will continue to be my country, everything I have is here," he said. "The government in Turkey couldn’t protect me even if they wanted to. Any family I stayed with there would be in danger. I’d have to go to living in holes."

For more background on Ibrahim Parlak's case, see Kari Lydersen's previous article: "America's ‘War on Terror’ Hits Café Gulistan"
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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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