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Turkish Hunger Strikers Dying

April 20, 2001

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ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ After months of surviving on sugared or salted water, Zehra Kulaksiz lies on a cot in a makeshift house in the poor outskirts of Istanbul with barely the strength to talk.

On the wall above her head is a picture of her 19-year-old sister, Canan, who died of starvation Sunday to protest the treatment of leftist inmates in Turkey’s prisons. The prisoners have been transferred to new cells where they are isolated and, according to their families, beaten daily.

``We want to show the outside world how people die in the cells,″ said Kulaksiz, a pale 22-year-old economics student who now weighs only 86 pounds.

Despite the deaths of 14 hunger strikers, Turks and most in the West are largely ignoring the plight of Kulaksiz and 230 other fasters, including 222 prisoners loyal to left-wing groups.

Turks instead are focusing on a crippling domestic economic crisis and have little sympathy for radical leftist militants suspected of organizing the hunger strikes to give prominence to their cause. And there has been little reaction in Europe, possibly because the leftist militants are not popular there.

International human rights groups, however, have urged Turkey to end its policy of isolating prisoners, which they say harms mental and physical health.

``The state will not bow its head under pressure from those who force their own friends to die,″ a defiant Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Thursday.

The strikers, however, are convinced that their plight _ and if necessary their death _ will make a difference.

In 1996, 12 inmates starved themselves to death before the government abandoned plans to transfer prisoners to remote jails where they faced solitary confinement.

``If people don’t die, nothing changes in this country,″ said Resit Sari, who has been fasting since December. He lives in a small house along with Kulaksiz and three other strikers.

Hunger strikers like Kulaksiz and Sari suffer from severe weakness, insomnia and muscle and stomach pains. Although they prolong their lives by drinking water with salt, sugar and lemon, protein drinks and sometimes eating a little food, they eventually go blind and later die.

Most of the hunger-striking prisoners are convicted members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Army-Front or similar armed Marxist organizations that have claimed responsibility for scores of attacks and assassinations over the past decade.

``The public has not looked upon this phenomenon with sympathy. They think it is a project of terror groups,″ said Ilter Turan, political scientist and dean of Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

In the old prisons, leftist inmates lived a communal life in large dormitory-style wards. Each political group controlled its own ward, where inmates were given physical and political training. When soldiers raided 20 prisons throughout the country in December, inmates resisted for four days with guns, makeshift flame-throwers and fire-bombs. The clashes left 30 inmates and two soldiers dead.

Turkey’s media have concentrated on an economic crisis that has seen thousands of bankruptcies and more than a half-million layoffs. Coverage is also sparse because a court in December banned the broadcast or publication of statements from outlawed leftist groups.

Some analysts say that the determination of leftist organizations to resist the transfers may also stem from the fact that the prisons had become their main power base since more members were inside jail than outside. There are only a few thousand members of armed leftist groups in Turkey.

``Through the transfer, they lose that power base within the prison system and their manipulative power over the members,″ said Dogu Ergil, political science professor at Ankara University.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk said that the government was drafting laws that would allow prisoners in small cells _ one to three people _ to participate in communal activities and would permit civilian inspections of prisons. The leftist prisoners want to return to the ward system, but Turk and Ecevit have ruled that out.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer urged parliament Friday to quickly pass the proposed laws and called on the hunger strikers to end their fast.

Presidential spokesman Metin Yalman added that Sezer was waiting for ``the inmates to end their actions and give a chance for the changes to be implemented.″

The prisoners rejected the offer and were demanding an immediate return to the ward system and direct negotiations with the government, Ozgur Tayad, a prisoners’ solidarity group, said in a statement.

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