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Ralph Fertig: Cog of justice

The longtime activist's latest cause has brought him before the Supreme Court.

March 20, 2010|Patt Morrison

Since he was in elementary school more than seven decades ago, Ralph Fertig has been, by history's long calculus, one of the good guys -- a civil rights Freedom Rider, a fighter for the down-and-out and disenfranchised from Washington to Los Angeles, and more recently on behalf of the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

But a dozen or so years ago, the Feds may have made the latter activity illegal -- a 1996 anti-terrorism law deems it a crime to give "material support" to any group that the U.S. considers to be terrorist. The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the main representative of Kurdish minority rights, was classified as one of those groups.

Fertig has pressed the courts to clarify the right to advocate for a beleaguered people, even if its interests are also represented by a designated terrorist group. Now the Supreme Court will decide. Fertig went to Washington last month to hear his case argued: Is it the language of the law that needs clarifying, or does Fertig's work for a nonviolent resolution of the Kurds' conflicts make him an outlaw?

The 1st Amendment is in play here, because as the law stands, even an Op-Ed essay or a sympathetic legal brief could be defined as aid and assistance to a terrorist group. Fertig is 80 years old; he was not quite 30 when he had every one of his ribs broken in a beating by white prisoners in a Selma, Ala., jail. This is an altogether different kind of pain.

How did you come to advise Kurdish nationalists in the first place?

I'm part of a nonprofit organization called the Humanitarian Law Project, involved in national liberation struggles. We were asked to look at this situation. The Kurdish population has lived in the same area for more than 6,000 years. They're the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. Following World War I, it was divided up among Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and in the part controlled by Turkey, they were told, "We're all Turks now, so no use for your language, no right to name your kids Kurdish names." It got to be enforced very strictly. The mayor of Diyarbakir, which is 98% Kurdish, was put in jail with a 25-year sentence because he spoke Kurdish. His wife was elected to the Grand National Assembly, and when she went on the floor wearing Kurdish colors, her legislative immunity was revoked and she was thrown in prison. Those are just sort of the glamour stories. At the grass roots, the Turkish government has made it a policy to eliminate the ethnicity.

Are these nationalists terrorists?

In the 1980s I set out to discover, is it a terrorist group or a national liberation group? To be a national liberation group you have to occupy some territory and have a chain of command and be able to exchange prisoners and follow a truce. I went to Kurdistan and found all those things applied to the PKK. So I submitted a paper to the U.N., where the Humanitarian Law Project has permanent consultative status to the human rights commission of the U.N. Then I started bringing people from Kurdistan to speak at the commission. The designation as a terrorist group took place, I believe, before any terrorist activity had taken place. Terrorist activity is basically if you go after any innocent third-party civilians for purposes of terror, and some of that has taken place in recent years, unfortunately.

My purpose is to try to build on what good relationship I have had with the Kurdish people and to try to steer them toward making their case to the U.N. and engaging in nonviolent protest and action, to file petitions for human rights abuses rather than engage in violence.

The government's argument is that any kind of aid gives a group something it would have to pay for otherwise.

That might be true if I were giving them anything that technically could be put on a world market to buy munitions with. What I'm giving them is merely advice and guidance, trying to persuade them to use nonviolent means.

This is a test case for international aid groups and human rights groups. What happens when a tsunami hits Sri Lanka, the parts that are controlled by the Tamil? That conflict has been settled, but until it was, [the law] would have chilled human rights workers because they were providing material aid to people who might end up being members of the Tamil Tigers, which is a terrorist group. What happens if there's an earthquake in the Middle East and you end up giving assistance to members of Hamas or Hezbollah? Our posture in the world should be building understanding with people who really want to pursue the American dream -- equal rights and justice.

Maybe the law was never meant to apply to such circumstances.

I have no doubt there were some members of Congress who intended to chill actions such as mine, but I think they were a distinct minority. I think most members of Congress just didn't think of it.

Have you worked with members of the PKK?

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