Fasting prisoners put Turkey's civilian and military leaders in tough situation

A hunger strike by more than 100 Turkish prisoners has touched a sensitive chord with the nation's still-young civilian government and military authorities.

The prisoners began their fast in early May to back demands for an end to torture and mistreatment by wardens, improved prison conditions, and a change in their status from criminal to political. Relatives and lawyers of the prisoners say they are determined to carry on their campaign to death. So far four have died.

Turkey's military and civilian leaders have made it clear they will not bow to the prisoners' demands. Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's government is worried that news about the fast could hurt the nation's image abroad. But on the other hand, the government feels it cannot bow to alleged terrorists and pressures by foreign groups or countries.

The government also has to take into account the sensitivity of the military leaders, who have not completely returned to the barracks. After all, a large part of the country is still under martial law, which many Turks feel prevents a resurgence of terrorism.

The hunger strikers are members of the militant ''Revolutionary Path'' and ''Revolutionary Left'' organizations, which claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks before the 1980 military coup.

The prisoners' lawyers and relatives, as well as human rights groups such as Amnesty International, have made frequent claims of torture and mistreatment in Turkish jails. The Turkish military authorities ordered an investigation, which ended in the trial and conviction of some of those responsible, including members of the military. But prisoners still complain about prison conditions and torture.

The hunger strikers undoubtedly hope to attract world attention more than to provoke public reaction in Turkey, since reports about such activities are censored. The military authorities have nevertheless admitted publicly the four deaths.

The hunger strike has received some attention and sympathy in Europe, particularly through the efforts of exiled Turkish leftists, who have held demonstrations.

In Turkey, a petition signed by 1,200 intellectuals calling for amnesty and an end to torture has also put Ozal in a tough position. Legal proceedings by military authorities are under way against 56 intellectuals who signed the petition.

This is the second round of prison hunger strikes this year. The earlier fast reportedly resulted in seven deaths.

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