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Hunger strike by Kurdish inmates spreads across Turkish prisons

This article originally appeared in Al-Monitor.

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — As election fever engulfs Turkey ahead of local polls in March, a hunger strike that began quietly in a prison in Diyarbakir is spreading to prisons across the country, with activists warning that Ankara’s apathy might lead to grave consequences.

The hunger strike was initiated two months ago by Leyla Guven, a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been in prison for nearly a year over her critical social media posts on Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, northern Syria.

Guven announced the hunger strike during the Nov. 7 hearing in her trial, held at the courthouse in Diyarbakir, the largest city of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. Speaking via a video link from prison, she described Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization, as a key figure in any peace effort to resolve the Kurdish question and denounced the restrictions that Ankara has placed on visits to Ocalan in prison. “Isolation is a crime against humanity, regardless of whoever is subjected to it,” she said. “As of today, I’m starting an indefinite and uninterrupted hunger strike.”

Though Guven cited Ocalan’s “isolation” as the reason for her hunger strike, the restrictions are not officially acknowledged as “isolation” by the Turkish state. The visitor restrictions on the PKK leader began in April 2015, shortly before the peace process between Ankara and the Kurds collapsed. No visitors were allowed to see Ocalan for nearly a year and a half after an HDP delegation paid him a visit in April 2015. Ocalan’s meeting with his brother in September 2016 became possible as a result of another hunger strike.

A group of 50 people had launched the hunger strike to denounce the lack of any news from Ocalan, which had sparked concerns over his well-being. The permission granted to Mehmet Ocalan came on the sixth day of the protest, and the visit was meant to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. The hunger strikers ended the protest after Mehmet Ocalan relayed his brother’s messages.

Prisoners in Turkey frequently resort to hunger strikes to press demands. They refuse food but usually drink tea and take salt, sugar and multivitamins to prolong their protests. For prisoners in PKK-linked cases, the protest reasons are often related to Ocalan. In a mass hunger strike in 2012, the improvement of Ocalan’s prison conditions was a major demand of the Kurdish prisoners. The 68-day hunger strike ended after a message from Ocalan that the aim of the protest had been attained.

Now, about two years after the most recent hunger strike in 2016, the demands are the same, though they have been raised by different figures. The protest initiated by Guven spread in waves, starting with short hunger strikes in a show of support, held at HDP offices, often with the participation of HDP lawmakers. In December, police raided HDP offices in Diyarbakir, Batman and Van, detaining dozens of people. The raids, however, did not stop the hunger strikes, which spilled over to prisons across the country. More than 100 prisoners have so far joined the protest.

With Guven’s hunger strike passing the two-month mark, the Diyarbakir Bar Association sounded alarm over the well-being of the strikers and warned that the affair might grow into an international embarrassment for Turkey.

Cihan Aydin, the chairman of the organization, sees the risk of the hunger strike spreading among more prisoners. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he called on the authorities to find a solution “as soon as possible” before the problem spreads.

“About 100 people are on hunger strike at present, including some who are not on a rotating basis. Turkey has a very bitter, very bad experience on this issue,” he said, referring to deadly hunger strikes in the past.

“The demand [of the prisoners] is about visits to Ocalan,” Aydin said. “Our view on the issue is clear. This is a legal demand. There is no legal obstacle to visiting Ocalan, but there is a political one. The Diyarbakir Bar Association demands the lifting of this obstacle. Allowing Ocalan’s relatives and lawyers to see him could stop this gloomy course of events.”

The lawyer stressed that the bar association was focusing on the legal aspect of the issue, while conceding that the political climate was rather unfavorable for a compromise. Pointing to local polls in March, he said, “We are on the eve of elections. Both Turkey’s political atmosphere and its international relations are extremely difficult. We know that all this makes for a difficult process, but at the end of the day, visiting [prisoners] is based on the law of criminal execution. The government may have other arguments, but we believe they should not be a reason to defer a legal right.”

Noting that relevant applications had already been made to the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, he cautioned that the response of those institutions might “create trouble” for Turkey.

Civic groups in the health care field have also urged the authorities to lend an ear to the hunger strikers. In a joint statement Dec. 28, the Diyarbakir Medical Chamber and Diyarbakir branch of the Trade Union of Health and Social Services Laborers, said they did not approve of hunger strikes, but stressed that “a humanitarian approach to demands that push jailed people to take action against their own bodies should be considered as the most rational solution to the problem.”

The two groups called for doctors to be permitted to visit and examine the hunger strikers, pointing to reports that they had begun to experience serious health problems other than weight loss, including walking difficulties, vision and speech impairment, hypotension, joint and muscle pains, nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and noise.

Referring to a deadly hunger strike by mostly far-left prisoners in 2000 and the bloody security operations it sparked, the joint statement said, “In other to prevent a repetition of the events in 2000, when dozens of people died and hundreds of others were left crippled as a result of [the raids] and the hunger strikes, the Justice Ministry should allow human rights defenders, especially medical chambers, to visit and examine the hunger strikers.”

Back in 2016, Turkey’s political atmosphere was relatively more moderate and the government allowed the visit to Ocalan shortly after the hunger strike had begun. Today, however, the climate has so hardened that even a two-day hunger strike by HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan and nine fellow lawmakers in parliament failed to generate a government reaction.

With critical local elections looming on March 31, the government is unlikely to take steps to end the hunger strike, wary of appearing as making concessions to the Kurds. How a solution could be found is anyone’s guess.

This article was originally published in Al-Monitor.

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