One year on, Turkish protesters continue hunger strike

Since October 2000, some 75 people have died in protest of harsh prison conditions.

By Nicole Itano

ISTANBUL, TURKEY

"We have no weapons except for our bodies," says an emaciated Halil Alksu, looking down at an orange star painted on his palm - the sign of an outlawed Marxist political group.

Mr. Alksu is allowing himself to die of hunger in hopes that his death, and the death of his comrades, will force the Turkish government to end a prison-reform program launched a year ago.

Until October 2000, Turkey's prisons were much like dormitories, with numerous inmates per room. Wardens complained that the wards were breeding grounds for radicalism.

In December, security forces raided prisons across the country, transferring more than 1,000 inmates to new "F-style" prisons, where inmates live in near isolation with one to three people per cell.

Human rights groups condemn the F-style prisons because they allow abuse by wardens. Since then, there has been a growing protest movement of inmates, family members, and friends. According to strikers and Human Rights Watch, 75 people have died in protest over the past year - 30 in a violent confrontation between prisoners and guards in December, and 45 in the hunger strike.

The Turkish government has shown little inclination to bow to demands to close the F-style prisons. And with the world's attention on Afghanistan, international pressure against the government has waned.

But the strikers have pledged to continue their campaign for as long as it takes: When they die, there are others willing to take their places.

"It felt like death. That cell and death are the same," says Mehmet Yamen, who was recently released and made his way to the impoverished Istanbul suburb of Kucuk Armutlu, where he joined Alsku.

In a tiny, dank house, Mr. Yamen, Alksu, and seven others live on a diet of tea, water, sugar, and salt. The house has become a monument to those who have died and a place where sympathizers and family members gather to show their support.

In addition to these, five other strikers live together in another city, and nearly 300 more are starving in prison. Another 1,000 supporters, they say, are undergoing 30-day fasts, followed by 10 days of eating, in preparation for joining the strike.

"The war in Afghanistan may make our fight last for a long time, but even then we will win in the end," said Alksu, whose heavy beard and bulky sweater hide his gaunt body. He has not eaten for more than 100 days, since he came to Kucuk Armutlu. Before that, in prison, he went without food for 211 days, until guards forcibly hospitalized him.

Like Alksu, many of the strikers come from poor families in rural Turkey and became involved in left-wing politics at one of Turkey's universities.

Most have spent several years in prison and at least several months in the F-style prisons.

They say the isolation of the new prisons is inhumane enough that they are willing to die so that others will not have to endure it.

A woman whose daughter starved herself to death on behalf of her imprisoned brother - who is also on a hunger strike - made a 15-hour journey to light a candle at the house in honor of her dead daughter. Her daughter was no revolutionary, she says, adding that she'd joined the strike after seeing the way her brother was treated in prison.

The outlawed Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front, or DHKP/C, to which Alksu and many others belong, has indeed been engaged in terrorist activities that have killed civilians in recent years. The strikers, however, try to distance themselves from terrorism and draw a clear distinction between dying and killing for a cause.

"We are against the killing of innocent civilians, so what they did to America is against what we believe," said Mr. Alksu. "To kill yourself for a reason is just, but you can't kill others, too."

Not all the strikers, however, have followed that code. Several months after being released from prison, one young striker, Uger Bulbul, went on a suicide mission that killed two police officers and a tourist.

The strikers see themselves as martyrs. The star-shaped henna on their left hands are put there as a sign of commitment, or marriage, to their cause.

A number of human rights groups have expressed concern about conditions in the new prisons, but believe that pressure from NGOs, the Council of Europe, and the European Union will do more to improve conditions than the death-strike. They worry that the strike has turned into a showdown between the government and the strikers, and that the government is determined to defeat the strikers.

"In the end, in the situation in which Turkey is in at the moment, it cannot go on running its prisons in a brutal and basically illegal way. It's going to have to change them sooner or later," says Jonathan Sugden, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has followed the strike.

"My guess is that the Turkish government's view is that, well, by the time we have to run these prisons in a humane manner, we will have broken these people."

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