Kurdish hunger-strikers fight for rights

Nearly 700 prisoners demanding greater recognition for Kurds in Turkey have refused food, some for nearly two months.

Turkey Kurds
Kurdish hunger-striker Mazlum Dikmen's family at their home in Istanbul, Turkey [Berza Simsek/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – Death by starvation or long-term health damage are what Mazlum Dikmen and hundreds of other Kurdish prisoners in Turkey are now facing.

About 70 Kurdish prisoners started an indefinite hunger strike in prisons across the country on September 12. In the following weeks, more than 600 prisoners have joined them.

Their demands include increased cultural and political rights for the Kurdish community, the country’s largest ethnic minority that now makes up between 15 to 20 million people in Turkey.

In their two bedroom flat in a mostly Kurdish populated shanty neighbourhood of Istanbul, the Dikmen family tell a tale that is common among the Kurdish community. Out of eight family members, two are in prison and one has fled Turkey to seek political asylum.

The father, Ahmet Dikmen, administrator of Istanbul’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), has also been prosecuted for his political activities.

While serving strong Turkish tea in their living room, Ayhan Dikmen, the mother, says she spends her life travelling from hearing to hearing, prison to prison, in pursuit of her children.

The Dikmen’s greatest worry nowadays is the welfare of their 20-year old son, Mazlum, who joined the hunger strike on October 5, in the city of Tekirdag.

Hunger-striking for rights

According to figures given by the Justice Ministry, 682 prisoners in 67 prisons across the country are currently on a hunger strike. Unofficial estimates are as high as 1,000 refusing food.

Most are jailed for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group listed as a “terrorist organization” by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

The  Kurdistan Workers’ Party are calling for autonomy in the Turkey’s restive southeast, an area densely populated by Kurds.

They are demanding improved prison conditions, and eventual house arrest if not full release for the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in a Turkish prison on the island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea since his capture in 1999.

The prisoners also want increased cultural rights for Kurds, including education in Kurdish language and the right to defend themselves in court in their mother tongue.

As is often the case in Turkey, many Kurds can spend months, if not years, in prison awaiting trial. Mazlum, a member of the BDP who has now spent more than two years in jail, has been charged with being a member of the PKK, but has yet to be convicted and sentenced.

“The authorities cited the testimony of confidential witnesses as evidence. This means they can imprison whoever they want on these ambiguous statements. Clearly the defense mechanism in the courts isn’t working,” Turan Dikmen, Mazlum’s eldest brother, told Al Jazeera.

After heavily armed police continuously raided and harassed the Dikmen family in their home, they decided to move for the welfare of their youngest child, five-year-old Helin Jiyan Dikmen. Ever since, she has been going through psychological therapy provided by the Human Rights Association.

Kurdish initiative

The PKK are calling for autonomy in Turkey’s restive southeast, an area densely populated by Kurds.

Their claim for an autonomous state led to the fight between the Turkish state and the PKK that has claimed more than 40,000 lives in 30 years. Soldiers’ deaths are the root cause of the Turkish majority’s indifference to Kurds’ demands for cultural rights.

In recent years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) relaxed its stance on the Kurdish issue. Bans on Kurdish-language education have been loosened, including the launch of an official Kurdish-Turkish dictionary. A state-run Kurdish-language TV station has also been established.

According to recent Turkish media reports, there have been attempts to carry the process a step further. Documents made public by the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, claim that Turkish intelligence officers and the PKK held a series of secret meetings in Oslo, Norway, between 2009 and 2011.

The document titled “AKP-PKK Agreement” calls for a permanent ceasefire to allow a deepening of negotiations and the establishment of committees to find a political solution.

“The polarisation between the Kurds and pro-Kurdish democrats on one hand, and the state on the other hand will grow bigger, and the violence will increase if we witness the death of these people.”

– Nazan Ustundag, sociology professor

But the talks apparently collapsed after a PKK attack killed 13 soldiers in July 2011.

The hunger strikes came 15 months after the end of these reported negotiations. Sureyya Onder, an MP from the BDP, told Al Jazeera the way to end the hunger strikes is to restart the negotiation process.

After almost a month and a half, it appears the mass hunger strike is having an affect.

“Their voice has been heard,” said Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, who had met with strikers at Sincan prison in the Turkish capital.  

Conversely, addressing domestic and international calls for attention, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the prison protests as “just a show”, and claimed that “only one person” is on a hunger strike.

Kadir Ustun, the research director at the SETA Foundation, a think-tank based in Washington, said that is because the government considers hunger strikes as “a part of political strategy of PKK”.

“Linguistic demands of strikers’ are already on the agenda of the government, which has been negotiating a new constitution. So, it’s not true that Turkey has abandoned its democratic reforms as strikers claim. It’s just a matter of time,” Ustun told Al Jazeera.  

Protests across the country

The BDP has launched actions to show solidarity with the hunger strikers. Clashes erupted between the police and the protesters during demonstrations organised by the party. The families of strikers have also set up tents to share information about prisoners refusing food.

Pro-Kurdish MPs are also considering joining them. “We still pressure the government through political channels. If it doesn’t work, we will also start a hunger strike,” said Onder.

The Dikmen family, however, is disappointed by the limited media coverage.

The fear of being imprisoned or labeled “a PKK member” is what keeps journalists away from reporting the story. As the Committee to Protect Journalists in a recent report puts it, 76 journalists, mostly Kurds, are imprisoned in Turkey because of their work.

“The Turkish public is increasingly polarised on the Kurdish issue, but the worse is around the corner,” Nazan Ustundag, an associate professor at the Department of Sociology at Bogazici University, told Al Jazeera.

A map outlining Kurdish areas in Turkey

“The polarisation between the Kurds and pro-Kurdish democrats on one hand, and the state on the other hand will grow bigger, and the violence will increase if we witness the death of these people,” she said.

Time is running out. The Turkish government said Friday that no strikers were in critical condition, but a Human Rights Association report published the same day contradicted the Justice Ministry’s statement.

The report says the prisoners are taking sugared and salted water and vitamins, but their health is deteriorating. Hypotension, tachycardia, and anal and nasal bleeding have been observed among the hunger strikers.

As Turan Dikmen shows the photo of his younger brother Mazlum, he says: “If hunger strikers start dying, no one can convince us that we can live together.”

Source: Al Jazeera