Kurds, as Turkey's largest ethnic minority, have struggled and continue to struggle for the recognition of their collective rights from the late Ottoman era through the history of the republic and to the present. Following many revolts, and particularly after the 1971 military coup, the Kurdish movement entered a process of very rapid radicalization.
Leftist organizations within the Kurdish movement tried to mobilize the Kurdish masses under Marxist-Leninist ideology under the principle that nations have the right to self-determination. For the first time since the early republican period, Kurds began to take action in the second half of the 1970s in line with the political goals the Kurdish movement had drawn up (Jongerden & Akkaya, 2012). The military coup of September 12, 1980, however, saw the state inflict extreme violence on both Kurds and the leftist movement, leading to a period in which the state attempted to completely wipe out both social movements. Under rule of the military junta, approximately 600,000 people were detained and most were subjected to torture and other forms of ill treatment. As for the myriad human rights violations of the era, the prisons in Mamak, Metris, and Diyarbakır were home to the most extreme oppression and torture.
With a majority detainee and prisoner population of Kurds, Diyarbakır Prison was transformed into a camp that employed the use of systematic torture, particularly throughout the first half of the 1980s. The brutal repression included numerous methods of torture, such as sleep deprivation, beating, electrocution, sexual assault and rape, forced living in filth amid excrement, and pulling out of fingernails, toenails, and teeth. Symbolic resistance against the torture also took place. As a protest against the torture at Diyarbakır Prison, Mazlum Doğan, a member of the central committee of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), took his own life by setting himself on fire on Newroz, March 21, 1982. Ferhat Kurtay, Eşref Anyık, Mahmut Zengin, and Necmi Öner, known as "The Four," then self-immolated on May 17, 1982. Turkish revolutionary Kemal Pir died on September 7, 1982, as result of a hunger strike against the torture he and others were subjected to at the prison (Güneş, 2013).
Practices with the purpose of destroying Kurdish identity were also employed at Diyarbakır Prison along with torture and other violence. One such practice was to force Kurdish-speaking detainees, prisoners, and visitors to the prison to sing nationalist Turkish marches. In 2008, Diyarbakır Prison was included as the fourth worst on Time magazine's list of World's Worst Prisons. Although it is difficult to determine the actual number of those who died and were killed in the prison, state records say 34 inmates died there from the systematic torture and resulting protests against it from 1980 to 1984. While hundreds of prisoners were physically harmed, nearly every political prisoner suffered psychological trauma.
J. Jongerden & A. H. Akkaya, PKK Üzerine Yazılar, trans. Metin Çulhaoğlu (Vate Yayınevi, 2012).
C. Güneş, Türkiye’de Kürt Ulusal Hareketi: Direnişin Söylemi, trans. Eflâ-Barış Yıldırım, (Dipnot Yayınları, 2013).
The Diyarbakir Prison Facts Investigation and Justice Commission was established in 2007 with the goal to transform the prison into a place of conscience or a museum. Founded by those victimized by human rights abuses during and after the 1980 coup, the '78s Foundation was the first to work for the implementation of this initiative in collaboration with experts in the fields of law, sociology, and psychology. The commission conducted in-depth interviews with 462 political prisoners who had been in Diyarbakır Prison in the first half of the 1980s, collected testimonies and evidence, prepared reports on the findings, and finally in 2010 filed a criminal complaint against those responsible for the state violence in the prison. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that same year that Turkey was to pay compensation for the torture that took place at Diyarbakır Prison. In 2011, this decision led 1,000 political prisoners who were subjected to human rights violations at prison to open a suit against the military and administrative staff of the prison. CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu published a letter on November 13, 2021, that called for social peace using the concept of halalization, which has the meaning of writing off debts and is couched in the Islamic concept of halal. He said that the human rights violations that took place at Diyarbakır Prison after the 1980 coup should be written off. Whereas the concept includes religious and thus abstract references, it has revived a hope in different segments of society that the efforts to come to terms with the past in Turkey will be replicated and strengthened in the political arena.
The goals this project seeks to achieve are 1) to raise awareness of the extensive human rights abuses that took place at Diyarbakır Prison, 2) to ensure the establishment of a truth commission to investigate the facts, and 3) to organize peaceful activities to transform the prison into a permanent memorial or museum in order to end the culture of silence in which criminals go unpunished. Many protests and demonstrations have been held in Turkey and the country’s Kurdish region for these ends. The high interest and participation they saw are a sign that significant results have been achieved in terms of raising awareness of the conversion of Diyarbakır Prison into a museum and making victims' voices reach a wider audience. In addition, two symposiums titled "Coming to Terms with Diyarbakır Prison" were held in Ankara and Diyarbakır. The '78s Foundation also launched a new campaign to transform Diyarbakır Prison into a human rights museum. It collected 100,000 signatures of support and presented it to Parliament in April of 2013.
The greatest challenge this initiative of remembrance has faced throughout its recent history has come from the Turkish state's resistance to the demand that Diyarbakır Prison be turned into a museum. The AKP government's response to such demands has generally been to block any recognition and remembrance of past human rights abuses. The reason behind this obstruction is the idea that commemoration of such events would damage the reputation of the state. In a speech in Diyarbakır in 2010, then Prime Minister Erdoğan said that Diyarbakır Prison would be demolished and a school would be built in its place. Eleven years after this speech, on July 9, 2021, now President Erdoğan announced that the prison would be emptied and turned into a cultural center, adding, "We are removing a bad memory from Diyarbakır." After Erdoğan announced at the rally in the city that the shuttered Diyarbakır E-Type Prison would be turned into a museum and cultural center, then Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ symbolically locked the prison gates and handed the key to then Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy.
Litigation that began in 2019 regarding the massacre at Diyarbakır Prison in 1996 was shut down 23 years later due to the statute of limitations having run out. The demolition both physically and legally of the prison, as one of the places where serious human rights abuses have taken place in Turkey's political history, is a nullification of demands for social remembrance.