Hunger strikes put Turkish government under pressure

Hunger strikes put Turkish government under pressure

In 66 Turkish prisons a total of 683 prisoners are on a hunger strike for the 52nd day today.

The figures were given by Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin in his joint press conference with German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger on Oct. 31. Actually, 64 of them have been on strike for that long, others have joined them along the way, according to Hürriyet Daily News accounts. But in Berlin, and coincidentally at the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was answering questions in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and saying there were actually no hunger strikers except one prisoner on a death fast. The rest were on a political show, he stressed. Erdoğan also said those who encourage and force the prisoners to strike were comfortably eating their lamb kebabs. He was referring to a photo showing some members of the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) at a traditional feast during the summer months.

Turkey has experienced a number of hunger strike and death fast vows before, some of them like the one in 2000 that ended with deaths and injuries as security forces raided the prisons. In all of the former ones, strikers were demanding an improvement in their prison conditions. Now, the strikers are demanding the easing of prison conditions and the eventual release of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), imprisoned for life. The PKK has been waging an armed campaign with the ultimate target of carving a Kurdish state out of the territories of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria and which has cost the lives of more than 40,000 people over the last three decades.

Öcalan, its founding leader, was captured in a joint Turkish-American operation back in 1999.

Perhaps because of the demands of the strikers, the hunger strike found little echo and support in the first few weeks other than in the BDP, which shares the same roots with the PKK. But as it grows longer and as nongovernmental Turkish organizations – from the Medical Doctors’ Union to the Human Rights Foundation – started to issue alarming warnings about the health conditions of the strikers, it started to become a political issue.

Yesterday, Nov. 1, Melda Onur, an opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) member of a parliamentary commission visiting prisons and talking to a number of strikers, told news channel CNNTürk that the ones she could talk to did not look like they were making a political show but on the contrary could hardly walk or talk and were in serious condition, having had only a minimum amount of water, sugar, salt and vitamins for more than 50 days.

World-renowned Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal, together with a group of human rights defenders and intellectuals, held a protest in Istanbul yesterday calling on the strikers to give up and for the government to find an immediate solution to prevent deaths in prisons. Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdağ, on the other hand, told NTV that there would be no force-feeding of the prisoners against their will.

It seems that the hunger strikes are developing quickly to a point that the government can no longer hide or ignore them.