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The BBC's Chris Morris reports
"It's an ideological struggle which is wasting young lives"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 18 April, 2001, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Turkey's radicals wait for death
Erol Evcil funeral
Nearly a dozen prisoners have already died
By the BBC's Chris Morris in Istanbul

In a small shanty on the edge of Istanbul, Zehra Kulaksiz lies in bed waiting to die. With a red bandana wrapped around her head, she is on hunger strike in solidarity with hundreds of left wing prisoners who are refusing food in protest against prison conditions.

Two women have died in this house in the last few days. One of them was Zehra's sister, Canan, a 19-year-old university student. The other was a 38-year-old mother of two children.


Do we have to die for this? In our country, we do

Zehra Julaksiz
Since late last month, 12 prisoners have also starved themselves to death as part of a countrywide protest, and doctors say dozens of others are in a critical medical condition.

The latest died on Wednesday in an Ankara hospital.

"Our prisoners are isolated and tortured," Zehra says, her voice barely rising above a whisper.

"Do we have to die for this? In our country, we do. For people to realise what's happening, and for democracy, we have to die."

Most Turks struggle to understand those motives, but more than 750 inmates are still taking part in the hunger strike.

Funeral of Canan Kulaksiz, 19
Women are among the dead - this student in support of her uncle
They are members of extreme left-wing groups which want to overthrow the state. They say they are vulnerable to abuse in new jails where many of them are held in isolation.

In December, the security forces stormed prisons across Turkey to enforce the transfer of inmates from dormitory wards into small cells. Thirty-two people - including two soldiers - were killed, but the hunger strike went on.

Now the most seriously ill have been taken to hospital. They are under heavy guard, and handcuffed to their beds.

For months they have been taking sugared water and vitamins to prolong their lives, but they have become too weak to survive much longer.


I have no sympathy for their ideology, but we cannot simply sit back and watch people die

Commentator Mehmet Ali Birand
Even if the hunger strike were to end today, many inmates would have suffered permanent medical damage.

Groups which have been trying to mediate an end to the dispute have been frustrated by a lack of progress, but Turkey's much-criticised Minister of Justice, Hikmet Sami Turk, has said he hopes a solution can be found soon.

"We are monitoring the situation with care and sensitivity", he said.

The government has been promising for some time to implement legal reform which would bring the regime of isolation to an end, but so far nothing has been done.

Turkish cell
Prisoners say small cells will leave them vulnerable to abuse
The new prisons have been criticised by pressure groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Mr Sami Turk says the government should not be blamed for the hunger strike, but it is coming under some pressure to address the issue more urgently.

A delegation from the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture has arrived in Turkey to discuss ways to end the hunger strike before more people die.

Cemeteries

No matter who is responsible, Turkey's human rights image will take another battering as long as it continues.

If there is no breakthrough in the next few days, the tragedy will certainly intensify.

Newspaper articles have described Turkish prisons as cemeteries, and warn that the death toll could reach 100.

"I have no sympathy for their ideology," said political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand, "but we cannot simply sit back and watch people die."

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