Hunger strike key weapon of jailed after failed Turkish coup

Educators and journalists among those held in ‘professional annihilation’ by Ankara

Esra Özakça poses with pictures of her husband, Semih, a primary school teacher, and university lecturer Nuriye Gülmen, who are both in prison and on hunger strike in Turkey. They were arrested after a prolonged protest over their dismissals in the crackdown that followed last July’s attempted  coup. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Esra Özakça poses with pictures of her husband, Semih, a primary school teacher, and university lecturer Nuriye Gülmen, who are both in prison and on hunger strike in Turkey. They were arrested after a prolonged protest over their dismissals in the crackdown that followed last July’s attempted coup. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

 

Esra Özakça’s husband Semih passed his 100th day on hunger strike this week. Sick with worry, and angry, on May 21st she joined him. Every day she calls his lawyer and the prison in Ankara where he is detained, hoping for a sliver of good news.

“I saw Semih on Monday. As long as he feels good he doesn’t want to end the hunger strike,” she said. Her own health is so far holding up, she says, but she is worried for Semih. “They are still not giving them the vitamin B medicament that we want to give them.

For six months Semih Özakça, a primary school teacher, and Nuriye Gülmen, a lecturer of comparative literature, stood on a street in Ankara to protest at being fired following a massive purge enacted after last July’s failed coup. They were frequently assaulted and derided by riot police stationed around the human rights statue from where they chose to mount their protest. Since March, the educators have survived on a diet of water, salt and sugar.

Last month they were taken from their homes and imprisoned. The pair were charged with acting on behalf of a far-left terrorist organisation, though why they were allowed conduct such a lengthy and public protest given the charges remains unexplained.

“Nuriye unfortunately is not anymore in good health,” said Esra. “She can rarely leave bed, she can’t write either – she’s too weak to hold the pen – so she can’t prepare her defence.”

Lives endangered

The case of Özakça and Gülmen moved 62 members of the European Parliament to write to Turkey’s minister for justice asking for their release, on grounds that their lives were endangered. International figures such as Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky and Yann Martel have issued messages of solidarity.

“We were accused of trying to create a new Gezi,” Gülmen wrote in a letter from prison several weeks ago, referring to the anti-government protests in 2013 that saw hundreds of thousands take to streets across the country.

Özakça and Gülmen are among tens of thousands of state employees behind bars for suspected links to the outlawed network linked to US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen that is blamed by Turkey for the abortive coup. The purge amounts to “professional annihilation”, according to an Amnesty International report released in May that says the authorities have fired more than 100,000 civil servants. Those who worked in education, law, the police or military forces are now prohibited from taking posts in similar fields for the private sector; many are left to survive on paltry trade union financial supplements.

And as suspected Turkish enemies of the state have suffered under the crackdown, recent months have seen detained foreign reporters forced to mount hunger strikes, too.

French photographer

French photographer Mathias Depardon was detained on May 8th while working for National Geographic magazine in Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the shores of the Tigris river in southeast Turkey. Two weeks into his imprisonment at a migration facility in Gaziantep, Depardon took to hunger strike to protest his situation.

The intervention of French president Emmanuel Macron, who urged his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to look into the case, secured Depardon’s release and return to France on June 9th.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Turkish official saying Depardon “had not acted within the boundaries of journalistic principles”, but he did not elaborate. The NGO Reporters Without Borders suggested Depardon’s published photographs of Kurdish militants contributed to his lengthy detention without charge. Though the European Union and United States consider the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group, Ankara’s loose definition of what “links to terrorism” amounts to has long been an obstacle to achieving closer ties with Europe.

Solitary confinement

Depardon’s case follows the detention in February of 43-year-old Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel for allegedly producing propaganda for a Kurdish terrorist group. Yücel, who holds German and Turkish citizenship, has suffered more than four months of solitary confinement in a prison west of Istanbul.

In April, an Italian journalist conducting research for a book about the Syrian conflict went on hunger strike while imprisoned in a province bordering Syria. The reporter, Gabriele Del Grande, was deported to Italy on April 24th following a two-week spell behind bars.

With hundreds of media professionals detained – the majority without charge – Turkey accounts for almost one-third of all jailed journalists worldwide, last year moving ahead China as the world’s leading jailer of the press, according to the annual survey compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency allows the government and President Erdogan to bypass normal parliamentary checks and balances.

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