Prisoners' strike tests Turkey's human rights image

One more prisoner on hunger strike died yesterday, bringing the total to 15.

Just before she died earlier this month, Gulsuman Donmez wrote a letter to her 11-year-old, son Sinan.

"I love you more than life ... and I don't know how to tell you how happy I am," she wrote.

She is one of 15 people who have died in a bitter protest over conditions in Turkish prisons. Thirteen inmates and two of their relatives have starved themselves to death since late last month, and dozens of others are in critical condition.

The hunger strike began last October as a protest against controversial prison reforms. The worst, prisoners say, is the policy of moving inmates from large dormitory wards into small cells, where, they say, they are isolated and beaten by brutal wardens.

In December, security forces raided prisons across the country to enforce the transfer of more than 1,000 people. Thirty prisoners and two soldiers died in four days of clashes, but the hunger strike did not come to an end.

Led by members of hard-line left-wing groups, the strike has generated little public sympathy. But it has become another test of Turkey's battered human rights image. With some 800 inmates taking part in the protest, criticism of the government is beginning to grow.

Even President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has urged the government to take more urgent steps to protect prisoners' lives. But the justice minister, Hikmet Sami Turk, has said there is "no question of negotiating with terrorists."

Most of the hunger strikers are members of the outlawed Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front or similar Marxist groups that have claimed responsibility for scores of attacks and assassinations over the past decade.

The government has promised to implement legal reforms in order to ease the regime of isolation, which is the main focus of the protest. The proposals have been condemned as insufficient, however, by lawyers and human rights groups.

"This draft bill does not really eliminate isolation. It is not possible for the prisoners to accept this," says Oral Calislar, a leading Turkish columnist who has been trying to mediate an end to the hunger strike.

There is little doubt that the Turkish prison system - the wards - had to change. Under the old regime, inmates ran their own wards and indoctrinated new recruits. Revolutionary slogans were painted on the walls, and there were military-style roll calls every morning. But the new prisons, known as "F-types," have been condemned by international human rights groups.

"The isolation regime in F-type prisons is physically and psychologically damaging to prisoners and should never have been instituted in the first place," said Holly Cartner of Human Rights Watch in a report released earlier this month. "The government should not wait for more prisoners to die before it brings the prison [system] into compliance with international norms."

Even now, there seems to be little sense of urgency. The proposals put forward by the government, which would also allow civilian inspection of prison conditions, will have to be approved in parliament. Even if that happens quickly, it seems that the protest will go on.

The hunger strikers manage to maintain strict discipline inside the prisons, and every prisoner who dies is buried as a martyr.

The latest funeral took place on Friday on the outskirts of Istanbul. Hundreds of armed troops equipped with riot gear watched mourners shout revolutionary slogans as they buried Ender Can Yildiz, a member of the illegal Turkish Communist Party. "There will be more deaths," said one mourner,"but we know we are winning."

The hunger strikers are calling for the abolition of F-type prisons, and of the system of state security courts that put most of them inside. The government dismisses their demands, and has appealed for the protesters to give in.

"It won't happen," Oral Calislar said, "the prisoners believe they have nothing to lose."

Except their lives, that is - but in this increasingly tragic protest, individuals have become a secondary concern. The political ideology of the state is pitted against the intransigent beliefs of small groups that want to destroy it.

Foreign diplomats in Ankara have expressed concern about the lack of progress in resolving the dispute, but criticism from abroad has been relatively muted. Prison reform is an important part of the changes that Turkey needs to make as it prepares for possible negotiations on membership in the European Union.

In the meantime, extra hospital space is being prepared for prisoners who are too sick to remain in jail, butdoctors are refusing to treat the hunger strikers against their will.The government, too, has said it is not responsible if people choose to die.

"I have done everything I can," Justice Minister. Sami Turk told reporters last week. "My conscience is clear."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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