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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 15:14 GMT
Shadow hangs over Turkish jails
Canakkale Prison
Prisoners say security forces set fire to dormitories
By Chris Morris in Istanbul

Three weeks after Turkish security forces stormed prisons across the country to regain control of dormitories run by left-wing militant groups, international human rights organisations are expressing grave concern about the state of Turkey's prison system.

Cell in new prison
New prison cells hold a maxiumum of three people
The government has said the move re-established the rule of law in the prisons following four days of violent clashes in which 30 inmates and two soldiers were killed.

But human rights activists have been inundated with complaints of torture and abuse from lawyers, doctors and prisoners' relatives.

Over 1,000 left-wing inmates have been transferred to new jails where they are kept in cells which hold a maximum of three people.

Hundreds of prisoners are still on a hunger strike which began over two months ago.

Investigation promised

The Justice Ministry has promised to investigate any allegations of abuse. But it has already dismissed claims that the security forces used excessive force and brutal punishment when they re-asserted control over the prisons, and transferred inmates to their new locations.

What is needed above all is greater openness and an independent investigation into what really happened last month

Human Rights Watch
The official version of events is that most of the prisoners who died set themselves on fire after refusing to surrender. They were members of violent Marxist groups who have vowed to overthrow the state.

But written statements from survivors suggest that in some cases prison wards were deliberately burnt down by incendiary devices, which were fired by members of the security forces.

Several of the dead also had bullet wounds, while survivors say they were repeatedly beaten and abused after the operation came to an end.

'Human rights for everyone'

There is no doubt that the prison system had degenerated into chaos, and something needed to change.

Officials say they had been unable to enter some areas inside the prisons for nearly a decade, and militant groups were using their dormitories as indoctrination centres.

The concern now, however, is that the new prisons are being used to implement a regime of isolation which does not conform to international standards.

Mother of a hunger striker
Relatives say prisoners have been beaten and tortured
"What is needed above all is greater openness", said Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch, "and an independent investigation into what really happened last month."

The government says it is ushering in the beginning of a new era of "human rights for everyone" in the prisons. But allegations continue to emerge that inmates have been abused and humiliated - beaten if they refuse to sing the national anthem or stand to attention during roll call.

European diplomats in Ankara believe the government is genuine in its determination to stamp out torture and ill-treatment, but they question whether senior officials really know what is happening behind closed doors.

Trouble looming

The next crisis is already looming. At least 30 of the prisoners on hunger strike are reported to be in a critical condition. Further deaths inside the prisons could spark renewed violence on the streets as well.

Last week a member of one extreme left-wing group, the DHKP-C, walked into an Istanbul police station with dynamite wrapped around his body. He blew himself up, killing a policeman and injuring 7 bystanders.

An injured inmate
Officials say prisoners set themselves on fire
Official institutions around the country are now on high alert. Most people believe there could be more attacks to come.

Local human rights groups are also under immmense pressure from the authorities.

They have been threatened, shut down, and warned that criticism of the new prison system could be a criminal offence.

"These people deserve to be listened to, not gagged and locked up," said Jonathan Sugden.

"It is the Turkish government's duty to protect and encourage human rights activists in their work, not to persecute them."

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See also:

03 Jan 01 | Europe
Suicide bomb blast in Turkey
22 Dec 00 | Europe
Troops end Turkey jail siege
07 Dec 00 | Europe
Turkey torture death admission
19 Dec 00 | Europe
Explosive mix in Turkey's jails
05 Dec 00 | Europe
Call to end Turkey 'death fast'
26 Jan 00 | Europe
Analysis: Can Turkey fit in?
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