The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s Kurds’ critical hunger strike

The last time Erkan Yildirim visited his imprisoned wife, Pervin, she told him about her recent meeting with their colleague, Fatma. "Pervin said Fatma was very sluggish, that her eyes were slowly darkening, that two or three people had to bring her to and from the bathroom," says Yildirim, nearly choking on the words. At that ...

Julia Harte
Julia Harte

The last time Erkan Yildirim visited his imprisoned wife, Pervin, she told him about her recent meeting with their colleague, Fatma. "Pervin said Fatma was very sluggish, that her eyes were slowly darkening, that two or three people had to bring her to and from the bathroom," says Yildirim, nearly choking on the words. At that time, Fatma had been on a hunger strike for more than a month.

What his wife said next, however, was even more troubling. Pervin informed Yildirim that she was about to begin her own indefinite hunger strike.

Pervin and Fatma are two of the approximately 700 Kurdish prisoners who are currently on hunger strikes across Turkey, though unofficial estimates put the count closer to 1,000. Since September 12, when 64 prisoners in four provinces around Turkey began refusing their regular rations, hundreds more have joined in waves, resulting in the biggest hunger strike ever undertaken by Turkish Kurds. Most of the striking detainees are in prison on disputed charges of supporting the outlawed Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), but they come from a wide range of backgrounds: journalists, college students, teachers, accountants, lawyers, mayors, and even two elected members of parliament.

The prisoners’ demands concern two flashpoints of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey, though the exact demands — and their order of importance — vary from source to source. The strikers want the government to allow Kurdish-language education and court defenses, to enter peace negotiations with imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, and to allow Öcalan’s relatives and lawyers, who haven’t met with him in over a year, to visit him and ensure that his living conditions are humane.

Entering peace negotiations with Öcalan is the most critical demand of the strikers, according to Ramazan Demir, a lawyer in Istanbul whose firm represents approximately 50 of the inmates on strike. But while the Kurdish-language rights and Öcalan visits seem more likely to be granted, negotiating with Öcalan remains anathema to the Turkish government. Öcalan co-founded the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) more than 30 years ago, and in 1984 led it into armed, separatist conflict against the Turkish government: an ongoing war that annually claims hundreds of deaths on both sides. Although he was imprisoned in 1999, Öcalan still wields major influence over the PKK. Despite the violence he incited, and that recent polls and reports suggest most Kurds no longer want the fully independent state that Öcalan advocated, many Kurds believe he is still key to ending the conflict.

Less controversial are the strikers’ calls for Kurdish-language education and court defense, which Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, who constitute one fifth of the population, have never been granted. Some successes on the language front have been achieved, such as the launch of Turkey’s first national Kurdish-language TV station in 2009 and the inclusion of Kurdish in foreign language course offerings at some Turkish universities. While much has been achieved since the 1980s, when even speaking Kurdish publicly could be cause for arrest, many Kurds still feel persecuted for asserting their own ethnic identity in Turkey, citing the more than 8,000 imprisoned Kurds in Turkey, many of whom have been arrested in what Human Rights Watch has termed "a crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics" in Turkey.

The hunger strikes are a major move to achieve Kurdish rights and peace negotiations after other efforts have failed. In 2009, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) attempted a "Kurdish Opening" to address the strikers’ issues, even secretively negotiating with Öcalan for a short period. The public rapprochement campaign fell apart after Turkey’s Constitution Court banned the country’s largest pro-Kurdish political party in December 2009 and the PKK responded with an upsurge in violence. Since the failure of those efforts, Turkey’s Kurds have felt progressively more alienated from their government.

With the first group of strikers now approaching their 60th day without food, many are vomiting blood, losing hearing and vision, and nearing death, according to the Turkish Medical Association. Amnesty International ordered Turkey to respect the prisoners’ rights after hearing reports that strikers were being denied vitamins and kept in isolated confinement.

Already, the government has offered some concessions. After a meeting of the Turkish Council of Ministers on November 5, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç announced that the government would prepare legal reforms allowing court defenses in Kurdish. He also declared that the justice ministry could allow Öcalan to meet with his lawyers, although the lawyers say they are repeatedly denied access to the island where Öcalan is imprisoned on the grounds that the boat there has "broken down."

No government spokesperson has addressed the demand for Kurdish-language education, nor for negotiating peace with Öcalan. Efforts to clarify the justice ministry’s response to the other demands by calling for comment on this article produced no response. What is obvious, from speaking to the analysts, lawyers, political representatives, and relatives of the strikers, is that the hunger strikes are pushing Turkey to a tipping point in its Kurdish policy. The strikers will elicit a major reaction — either by achieving their demands, or by martyring themselves to spur a larger protest.

"The political routes for achieving the demands of the hunger strikers are closed," says Koray Çaliskan, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University.

The strikers’ demands are still central to the agenda of the Kurdish nationalist Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which holds 29 of the 550 seats in Turkey’s parliament. "In the 21st  century, Kurds in Turkey still can’t educate themselves in their own language, can’t defend themselves in their own language, can’t get health services in their own language, and for this they’re bringing their bodies to the brink of death," says BDP deputy MP Sebahat Tüncel. "Turkey must be ashamed of this."

The ruling party, in the meantime, has issued a series of contradictory statements about the hunger strikes: They aren’t happening at all; They’re "just a show;" Hundreds of prisoners are spontaneously quitting the strike; They’re being forced to strike by the BDP or PKK. While in Germany recently, Erdogan declared that he’d seen for himself that "no one is hungry, everyone’s eating" in Turkey’s prisons. But simultaneously, in Turkey, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin announced the number of strikers to be 683.

At his party’s annual meeting on November 3, Erdogan also claimed that the majority of Turks wanted the death penalty reinstated in Turkey so that Öcalan could be executed. But two days later, Deputy Prime Minister Arinç hastened to assure the public that bringing back the death penalty was "not an issue our government wants to introduce today."

"They’re lying like children," says Roni Sariyildiz, a student at Istanbul Technical University whose older brother, Faysal Sariyildiz is one of the imprisoned Kurdish MPs on a hunger strike. "It would be very funny, but people are going to start dying each day from now on."

As more inmates join the strike, Erdogan’s claim that the BDP is "forcing" the inmates to starve themselves seems increasingly far-fetched. BDP leaders flatly deny it: "It’s as if they’re trying to render the demands meaningless, saying ‘some of them were forced to start the hunger strike.’ But it wasn’t like that at all. These people started striking of their own volition," says Tüncel.

The gradual accumulation of strikers proves that they were not organized by the PKK or the BDP, agrees Çaliskan. "It was organized individually, among inmates and through lawyers," he explains.

The government can only stop the strikers by meeting their demands, say their lawyers. "They told me that if anyone tries to stop them by force-feeding, they will burn themselves," says Demir, the Istanbul lawyer.

According to Demir, allowing any of the strikers to die will cause a "huge divide" between Turks and Kurds. Yildirim agrees. "If the AKP government can’t answer those who are putting their bodies on the line, Kurds will be at the point of splitting off from Turks," he says. Supporters have echoed this point in their protests over the past week. As a girl was led to a police bus during a protest on November 4, she shouted at them, "If you take me, I have six siblings who will go to [join the PKK in] the mountains!"

Turkish organizations such as the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV) and the Human Rights Foundation (IHD), support the prisoners’ demands for the right to speak Kurdish in school and in court, and for Öcalan’s lawyer and relatives to visit him and ensure his prison conditions are humane.

"These are basic human rights issues," says Metin Bakkalci, head of TIHV. "We cannot say these are new demands, either, so we are already very late in meeting them." Turkey’s prison population has more than doubled in the last six years, Bakkalci adds, which he believes indicates the extent to which democratic rights "have been narrowed" in the country.

Pervin and Fatma, for example, have been at Istanbul’s Bakirköy Prison for Women and Children since December 2011, when they were among 36 employees of the Dicle news agency (DIHA) taken away by police on suspicion of belonging to the KCK. The raid was part of an ongoing spate of journalist arrests in Turkey that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has termed "one of the world’s biggest crack­downs on press freedom in recent history" in a recent report.

In the 10 months since their arrest, Pervin, Fatma, and their colleagues have not been charged with a single crime — primarily because they, like the thousands of other Kurds detained under the KCK file, have not been allowed to give statements in their native Kurdish. Because Kurds are not legally acknowledged as a minority population within Turkey, their language is not protected like other minority languages. In protest of this, most of the 8,000 Kurds behind bars have refused to deliver their defenses until they can do so in their mother tongue.

If an Armenian has a court hearing in Turkey, the court must provide a translator. "But if someone tries to defend themselves in Kurdish in court, they record it as, ‘the accused spoke an unknown language,’" says Professor Çaliskan. "The problem is assimilation. The government has been partly successful in assimilating them: 40 to 45 percent of the Kurds would not pursue these demands, because they’re able to forget their Kurdishness."

Per the November 5 announcement, Turkey’s Law on Criminal Procedures may soon be amended to require translators for Kurdish defendants. But the strikers and their friends and family are not forgetting about their other demands any time soon, and their supporters are taking ever more urgent steps. After promising to "halt normal life" on October 30, supporters all over Turkey took to the streets, frequently clashing with police. Many shops, schools, and transit systems shut down for the day in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country. Protests continued through the week, with police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters in Istanbul on Sunday, and hundreds of people gathering in Istanbul’s city center each evening to raise awareness about the strikers.

Yildirim says he’s losing hope that the government will act soon to stop the strike: "In this country, certain things won’t change until people die."

Even initial deaths may not elicit the desired reaction from the government. Between 2000 and 2007, thousands of prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest the conditions in isolation cells, and 122 died. When Turkish security forces tried to stop the strikes through an intervention named "Operation Return to Life" at 20 prisons, an additional 31 prisoners died. "In the last decade, I don’t know of any place that’s had more hunger strikers, and deaths from hunger strikes, than Turkey," says Çaliskan. 

Julia Harte is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

Julia Harte is a national security journalist at the Center for Public Integrity.

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