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Death Toll Hits 87 as Turkish Prison Protest Strike Continues

On November 4, 2001, Turkish police used armored vehicles to batter down the barricades protesters had erected in Kucakarmutlu, an outlying district on the European side of Istanbul. The semi-official news agency Anatolia reported four protesters had died of burns or carbon monoxide poisoning after setting themselves ablaze. A police officer present at the scene, however, said the four had been found dead when police entered the premises. Fourteen protesters were reported injured during the raid, some seriously.

This happened almost a year after the police had stormed some 20 prisons for four long days in December 2000. Thirty-two died then, 30 prisoners and two police officers. [See: PLN , August 2001]. Here too, it was reported that many prisoners set themselves aflame rather than surrender. Again the official version was contradicted when surviving prisoners said the army poured gasoline into open holes in the roof and set it afire.

What were the prisoners and their free supporters _ hunger strikers all _ demanding that drove (and continues to drive) them to the point of death, and causes the police to attack them? Some of the strikers in the November raid were prisoners who had been released because they had starved themselves into conditions so terrible the prisons no longer wished responsibility for them.

Prior to 1996, Turkish prisons were generally dormitory style in which many prisoners were housed together in one large area. The Turkish government claimed this constituted a danger to custodial staff and began to implement a plan for so-called F-type prisons designed to hold prisoners in one to three-person isolation cells. It was clearly an attempt to destroy prisoner solidarity and organization, especially that of political prisoners who constitute one sixth or more of the Turkish prison population currently estimated to be between 59,000 and 70,000, depending on the source consulted.

F-type prisons with isolation cells are patterned on similar control-unit prisons both in the United States (where they house more than 100,000 _ or about five percent of the prison population by the estimates of some activists), and in Germany. In the summer of 1996, when twelve prisoners died during a hunger strike protesting the planned F-style prisons, the government backed down. Not convinced of defeat, however, it returned in the summer of 2000 and again began implementing the plan for F-type prisons. The same resistance was encountered and a massive hunger strike of some 1,000 political prisoners began.

Originally the strikers were largely composed of members of the DHKP-C, the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front; the TKP-ML, the Communist Party of Turkey Marxist-Leninist; and the TIKB, the Communist Workers Party. As the strike progressed other groups and single individuals joined it. Many were Kurds struggling for self-determination within the Turkish state. By December 2000, solidarity strikes had began outside the prisons in Turkish cities, as well as elsewhere in Europe. Journalists, writers, actors and other prominent people gave the issue publicity. Some of them offered to mediate and a settlement was thought to be near early in December 2000. Instead the government, bent on its policy of isolation, stormed the prisons dragging all the political prisoners therein to the newly constructed F-type prisons. There they _ wounded and unwounded alike _ were thrown into tiny cells where many were tortured. In Turkey torture is an accepted and legal practice, and prisoners and their supporters have every right to fear it.

Instead of the end of the hunger strikes the government contemplated, strike and strikers alike drew strength from the December attack. In July 2001, a victory of sorts was won when Turkey's Minister of Justice, Minhikmen Sami Turk, declared, "From now on not a single prison will be built anywhere in Turkey." Eleven F-type prisons had already been built or were nearing completion. The number of strikers rose to as many as 2,000 and the strike continues as we go to press. As of January 20, 2002, 87 prisoners, former prisoners, and their free-world supporters had died in this, probably the longest and most lethal hunger strike in world history.

Hunger strikes do not always end in failure and, when they receive sufficient publicity their participants often emerge victorious. We can only hope this will be the case for the Turkish strikers.

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey maintains a web site in support of the medical needs of strikers at; other sites available for information are at www.merip.or/pins/pin42.html and (this requires translation from Turkish script). The first two sites listed offer information in English but it is not current. A search using the search engine will yield much more recent information in this ongoing campaign.

Sources: website of BBC News_Europe; Workers World ; California Prison Focus; Columbia University's Electronic Encyclopedia ; and San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center.

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