Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review


A strike to the death

Political prisoners in Turkey are tortured by the regime, writes Kathy Lowe
Ìlhami Soner: 'As parents, we want to tell them to stop tha fast but we can't. We respect and support their political stand.'
Ìlhami Soner: 'As parents, we want to tell them to stop tha fast but we can't. We respect and support their political stand.'

'We know Bobby Sands--he is alive in our prisons,' families of Turkey's political prisoners on hunger strike told a labour movement delegation from the Irish Republic and Britain last month.

Like the H-Block Republican prisoners in 1981, hundreds of jailed opponents of the Turkish regime are on hunger strike to defend their political status. They started a rolling programme of hunger strikes on 20 October--action coordinated jointly by 11 far left organisations. In mid-January the delegation found 1,200 prisoners refusing solid food. Of these, 50 had been fasting for more than 90 days and were expected to die at any time.

Political prisoners in Turkey are fighting against the imposition of harsh F-type isolation cells that rob them of the right of association--the right to organise. The authorities are building 11 of these F-type prisons, three of which have already been completed and which hold between one and three people in a cell.

Until now political prisoners across the country had been kept in large communal areas largely under their own control. Then on 19 December 2000 the government sent in security forces armed with guns, incendiary bombs and nerve gas, to 'retake' 20 jails, killing 30 prisoners and severely injuring hundreds more. This massive assault, condemned by international human rights organisations and by the European Parliament, was aimed at smashing the hunger strike and political opposition in the jails for good. Firdes Kirblyik, a 30 year old leader of the health trade union who survived the raid on Gebze prison, told the delegation, 'The troops dragged us out of our cells at gunpoint, demanding to know which of us were on the death fast. When we refused to answer the prison guards indicated the room where the hunger strikers were lying. The soldiers then threw in nerve gas and closed the door.'

The raid ended with a number of political prisoners suffering rape by truncheons and other forms of brutal treatment as 1,096 of them were moved to the new isolation prisons. 'They didn't take us there, they beat us there,' said Oursun Armutlu, recently released from prison and interviewed by the delegation in Istanbul's Okmeydaivi Hospital. He described how in their F-type cells, still on hunger strike, he and others were routinely tortured, kept in the cold and dark, wrapped only in blankets.

In 1996 a hunger strike by political prisoners against the threatened introduction of isolation cells forced the government to back off, but not before 12 prisoners had died. This time, in moves similar to the Thatcher government during the H-Block hunger strikes, the Turkish regime has staked its authority on completely destroying a whole layer of its political opponents.

However, the Turkish government is on the defensive since the country's trade unions showed their muscle in a general strike against austerity in November last year. The last thing Turkey needs, as a leading member of Nato and as a candidate member of the EU, is a human rights scandal of such proportions. But the regime is being forced to intensify and extend the repression in a bid to keep the lid on the prison turmoil.

The delegation met distraught relatives of hunger strikers who had been assaulted by guards when they tried to visit the prisons. It heard from lawyers who, on entering the jails, are being forced to strip to their underwear, surrender their papers and limit their time with their clients to just ten minutes. It interviewed trade unionists who had been arrested during protests, and prominent intellectuals threatened with arrest for founding the organisation Writers and Artists Against the F-types.

Five branches of the Turkish Human Rights Association have been closed down. Its leaders, who briefed visiting representatives of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture from the Council of Europe, say it is now impossible for them to hold news conferences without these being broken up by police. According to Human Rights Association chairperson Hùsnù Òndùl, hundreds of political prisoners are charged with being members of banned organisations and some have never been brought to trial. Thirteen and 14 year old children are among those who have been given heavy sentences for handing out leaflets, flyposting or joining demonstrations.

Many journalists and writers are also in jail and attempts to muzzle the media have been central to the government's strategy. On 16 December 2000 the state security court in Istanbul banned any broadcasts or newspaper reports about the isolation cells and hunger strike. But leaders of all the main trade unions defied the ban, appearing together on television after the prison raid to condemn the massacre by the security forces. Journalists, especially those from the smaller papers of the far left, continue to play a cat and mouse game with the authorities, determined to get the news of the hunger strikes out to the rest of the world whatever the personal cost.

Every organisation the labour movement delegation met in Istanbul and Ankara had close links with the Turkish community in Britain, which is campaigning in solidarity with the Turkish political prisoners. It was stressed at the meetings that there was a tremendous urgency for international pressure on Turkey to be stepped up, for an EU-wide ban on arms sales, for an £8 million grant to Turkey agreed by the EU to be rescinded, and the $10 billion austerity package agreed by the IMF to be cancelled.

A meeting of the delegation with prisoners' families brought a final reminder of the H-Blocks. Ìlhami Soner, whose son Mahmut and nephew Özgùr are all on the death fast in an Ankara prison, described his anguish at seeing them now unable to walk and beginning to lose their memories. 'As parents,' he said, 'we want to tell them to stop the fast but we can't. We respect and support their political stand.'

Kathy Lowe was part of a labour movement delegation to Turkey in January to look at the conditions of political prisoners

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