Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Turkish Prisoners Struggle Against Transfers

When the Turkish army stormed 20 prisons in December, 2000, a four-day pitched battle ensued during which thirty-two died _ 30 political prisoners and two soldiers. The army claimed that many prisoners set themselves afire rather than surrender; prisoners who survived allege that in at least one prison, Bayrampaga in Istanbul, the army opened a hole in the roof and poured gasoline on the women prisoners below burning six women alive. Prisoners also charge certain among them were singled out for death. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a joint statement, allege that prisoners were deliberately abused during and after the raids and that after the raids, treatment for injuries was denied. This raid was the first large-scale attempt made by the government of Prime Minister Ecevit to move prisoners from ward-style prisons, where large numbers of prisoners are crowded in dormitories, to F-type prisons modeled on U.S. super maximum prisons where prisoners are housed one to three to a cell. Four such prisons have already been built and more are planned. Prisoners already housed there are allowed to leave their cells only once a week if an immediate family member visits.

In 1996, the government had contemplated a similar move but desisted when, in protest, 12 prisoners starved themselves to death. When similar plans became known in the fall of 2000, prisoners again began to fast. The rationale behind the government's desire was to break up the control prisoners had over their dormitories. Guards stayed away from the communal wards because they could not protect themselves: hostage taking was not uncommon, nor were riots. The government contends that the dormitories had become indoctrination centers for leftist, Kurdish and Islamic groups and that these groups could have avoided much of the violence that permeated the prisons. Of some 72,000 Turkish prisoners approximately 10,000 are political prisoners belonging to these groups.

Prisoners are resisting transfer to the smaller control units because they fear being tortured, something for which Turkey has long been famous. According to Turkish human rights attorney, Eren Keskin, "Torture is state policy and [is] used systematically. All thinking apart from official thinking is a crime." Once the prisoners began their hunger strike it began to spread. By mid-March it had reached France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. Not only prisoners, but soon, families and supporters of prisoners began to fast as well. By the end of April, 2001, 800 people, prisoners and supporters, were still on continuous hunger strikes; of them 230 were classified as on fasts that would terminate only with death. Starvation had claimed its first victims by March 21. By the beginning of July, 2001, 25 more had died.

The fasting prisoners were imprisoned for their criticisms of the Turkish government; they are from organizations the Turkish government has declared to be terrorist: the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), the Communist Party of Turkey-Marxist-Leninist (TKP-ML), and the Communist Workers Party of Turkey (TKIP). Their demands are three: an end to the F-type prisons; an end to Turkish "anti terrorist" laws that outlaw political activity by the left; and the punishment of those who have tortured prisoners. They also demand to meet directly with the government.

In April of 2001, Justice Minister Hikman Sami Turk announced the government was drafting legislation that would allow prisoners in the new F-type prisons to take part in communal activities and allow civilian inspection of the prisons. This legislation was rejected by the strikers. In May, Irish Republican and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called on his government, as a member of the UN Security Council and the European Union (EU), to pressure the Turkish government to enter negotiations with the prisoners: "Recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm that the regime of solitary isolation being introduced in the new F-type prisons is in direct breach of commitments made by the Turkish Justice Ministry."

Turkey is the largest recipient of U.S. funds after Israel, Egypt and Colombia; it represents the gateway to the oil supplies of the East and the Middle East, which the United States needs. A member of NATO, it also represents an ally on which the United States counts in its efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Though Turkey lies almost entirely in Asia Minor _ only half its capital, Istanbul, is in Europe, the remainder of the country is in Asia Minor _ it has considered itself European since 1923 and, as such, has sought entry into the European Union. The EU, however, has made its acceptance contingent on Turkey's bringing its human rights into compliance with the standards required of other members. A primary requirement _ and a serious sticking point _ is Turkey's death penalty; this penalty has been abolished by all EU member countries. F-style prisons have been deemed "not acceptable" and, according to the EU, should be "ended quickly." It has also called for an end to the practice of torture, the end of constitutional limits on free expression and for the recognition of full cultural rights for Turkey's large Kurdish minority. [ Editor's note: several EU countries, notably Spain and Germany, operate super-max prisons. ]

International human rights groups have urged Turkey to end its practice of isolating prisoners in F-style prisons; in an HRW memorandum issued in April of 2001 which documented the abuse of prisoners in the new high security prisons, the organization called on the Turkish government to abandon this practice. HRW has also documented the manner in which Turkish officials have silenced critics of the prison regime. Journalists who have reported on the abuses resulting from the transfers and on the progress of the hunger strikers have been detained, prosecuted and themselves imprisoned. The offices of Turkish human rights groups have been closed down and their representatives charged with "supporting illegal armed groups;" prisoners' relatives have been subjected to persecution and humiliation as a matter of routine on visits to prisons. The hunger strike, nevertheless, goes on.

Sources: The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Workers World, The Irish People, The Seattle Times, In These Times, The Revolutionary Worker.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login