Zehra Doğan is a ethnic Kurdish painter and journalist from Diyarbakır, Turkey. She is best known as the editor of Jinha, a feminist Kurdish news agency reporting news in the Kurdish language with a staff consisting entirely of women. Since February 2016 Doğan has been living and reporting in Nusaybin, a Turkish city located on the Syrian border.
Up until 1991, the Kurdish language was entirely banned in Turkey. A law passed that year allows the language for communication but bans the purposefully vague “spreading of propaganda.” Language issues still remain particularly tense in southeastern Turkey, where in 2012 the Interior Ministry threatened to disband Nusaybin’s city council for entertaining a proposal to include Arabic, Armenian, Aramaic, and Kurdish on city signs.
In addition to being an award-winning journalist, Zehra Doğan is a popular painter. Her work ranges from colorful, flowing depictions of traditional Kurdish life to dark, striking political scenes.
To the Turkish government, which even banned the word “Kurd” until the 1990s (calling them “Mountain Turks” instead) Zehra’s act of expressing her culture in painting and writing was unacceptable. On July 21, 2016 she was arrested while at a café in Nusaybin.
At a court hearing, multiple witnesses testified that Doğan was a member of an illegal organization, though not one witness knew her by name. An anonymous witness claimed “There was… a short lady with a nose ring… I do not know the individual’s identity; she is probably a journalist.” The prosecution’s lawyers used Doğan’s paintings and social media posts as evidence against her.
“Art and paintings can never be used in such a way,” expressed Doğan’s lawyer, Asli Pasinli. “This is an attack on art and artistic expression.”
In the three-month state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the attempted coup on July 15, 130 media outlets have been shut down by the Turkish government. Doğan testified that all the crimes she is accused of are journalistic activities, for which she is registered with the state and a member of the Union of Journalists of Turkey.
It is not uncommon for pretrial detention in Turkey to last for years, and it is often used as a punishment for artists, journalists, and protesters against whom prosecutors cannot build a strong case.
Zehra Doğan is currently being held in the E Type Closed Prison in Mardin, Turkey. She is still awaiting trial, and due to the arbitrary nature of pretrial detention in Turkey it is impossible to suggest when she will be released.