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Hunger strike in Turkey

On the 19th December the Turkish military stormed prisons across the country in an attempt to force an end to a hunger strike by over 800 political prisoners.  In the assault, thirty-one prisoners killed.  To overcome the fierce resistance of prisoners, the army used bulldozers to knock down walls, fired machine guns and pumped poison gas into dormitories.  Most of those who died were burned to death by incendiary bombs. The launch of these raids, inappropriately named “Operation Return to Life”, came just days after the Turkish Minister for Justice had pledged to delay the opening of controversial new prisons.

The hunger strike had been launched in October by members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation-Front (DHKP-C) to protest against the government’s proposals to ‘reform’ the prison system.  A key element of these proposals was the transfer prisoners from dormitory prisons, which hold 80-100 prisoners, to new maximum security ‘F-Type’ isolation sells.  Political prisoners viewed this as a major threat, which was designed to break their solidarity and leave them more vulnerable to psychological pressure and physical abuse.  The history of murder and torture in Turkish prisons gave them good reason to be alarmed.  Between 1980 and 1095, 460 prisoners died from torture, lack of medical attention, armed actions by the state or as the result of hunger strikes.  In 1996, the last time the government attempted transfers, 12 political prisoners died.   Indeed, one of the demands of the current protest is the release of those left physically and mentally disabled from 1996 hunger strike.  The fact that there are a total of 10,000 political prisoners in Turkey is testament to the repressive nature of the regime.  Although a second element of the prison ‘reform’ programme was the introduction of an Amnesty law, which would free up to 35,000 prisoners, it explicitly excluded left political prisoners.

Since the raids, a thousand prisoners have been transferred to F-Type prisons.  Human rights groups have reported that beatings and torture have continued here.  Yet, the hunger strike is also continuing.  Over a thousand prisoners have joined, and many on the original fast are close to death.  The prisoners have joined the hunger strike in waves, so not all are the same stage.  As the strike continues the number of deaths is likely to escalate substantially.

The prison struggle has also had a resonance in wider Turkish society.  Thousands of people in different cities, including Istanbul, Ankara and Adana, have taken to the streets in protest.  The hunger strike has galvanised a section of the Turkish population, particularly in urban working class districts, where people are fed up with the repression that is meted out daily by the sate.  The government response to this opposition has been predictably brutal.  Demonstrators were net with violence and mass arrests.  Human rights groups within Turkey have been warned by the government that any criticism of the F-Type prisons would be considered a criminal offence.  The headquarters of Turkey’s independent Human Rights Association was raided and ransacked by the police, and its director temporarily detained.  The media has also being warned against “excessive” coverage of events in the prisons.

The Turkish authorities are particularly sensitive because the hunger strike is taking place against a background of economic crisis and growing social unrest.   On 6th December the IMF adverted a financial collapse in Turkey with a $7.5 billion loan.  The conditions of this loan included the speeding up of its privatisation programme.  (A week after the loan tenders were announced for the sale of 33.5 per cent of Turk Telecom and 51 percent of national carrier Turkish Airlines.)  The IMF also demanded the strengthening of the austerity programme that has been in place for three years, with new regressive taxes and restrictions on wages.  In the past year, there have been major public sector strikes against such measures.  An intensification of austerity is therefore likely to provoke more opposition.

The maintenance of the repressive regime in Turkey is in the interests of western imperialism.  It was and continues to be a key ally. Turkey is a member of NATO, the third largest recipient of US military aid, and is negotiating to become a member of the EU.  Its proximity to the former Soviet Union and the Middle East gives it great strategic importance.  It is the main destination for oil flowing out of the Gulf States through pipelines, and hosts key US air bases.  These have played a central role in Gulf War and Balkan campaigns, and continue to be used to enforce US military domination of the region.  It is also the major bulwark in the denial of national rights to the Kurds.  Any opposition movement that seriously threats the regime in Turkey will inevitably come into confrontation with imperialism. This is why the current hunger strike and the ripples it is sending out across Turkish society are so important.   They have the potential to shift the balance of power in that important region.

In Ireland, coverage of the Turkish hunger strike has been limited.  It is also ironic that those for which the struggle for the rights of political prisoners should have strong resonance, have been almost silent on the issue.  Sinn Fein has made no statement of solidarity with the prison struggle in Turkey.  They are more interested in sucking up to the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, the people who are the biggest backers of the repression.


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