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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 22:26 GMT
Turkish hunger strike doctors cleared
The mother of hunger-striker is comforted after police raid a prison
Relatives supporting hunger strikers could also be jailed
By Tabitha Morgan in Istanbul

Eight Turkish doctors have been acquitted of assisting in the suicide of 42 hunger strikers who starved themselves to death over the past year.

The hunger strikers - all prison inmates or members of their immediate families - were protesting at government attempts to introduce a new kind of prison accommodation.

They claimed it would leave inmates at risk of abuse by prison authorities.

Human rights workers and aid agencies have welcomed Tuesday's acquittal.

It's a real problem now - because we have a child, and if I was arrested our son would be alone

Hunger striker's wife Hatoon Kesser
But they also voiced concerns that health professionals could be the targets of legislation introduced in recent weeks which makes refusing to force feed patients a criminal offence.

All eight doctors are members of the Honorary Board of the Turkish Medical Foundation, which has accused the government of attempting to remove doctors' professional independence and violating human rights.

If doctors are to avoid falling foul of the new laws they will be obliged to force feed hunger strikers against their will.

Whatever ethical questions this raises it will also present doctors with considerable practical difficulties.

Forcible restraint

Force feeding usually takes place intravenously after a patient has lost consciousness.

But in order to prolong their protests the Turkish prisoners have been taking vitamin B - and as a result usually remain conscious and alert until the moment of death.

Doctors will then be faced with the prospect of having to forcibly restrain weak and emaciated patients in order to feed them.

Police armoured vehicle uses water cannon to disperse rioters in support of the hunger strikers
The hunger strikes have sparked riots in Turkey
Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk has said that the state has an obligation to deal with the ongoing death fasts.

The government has consistently claimed that hunger strikers are pressed to fast by extremist political groups who maintain discipline within the prisons through intimidation.

Under the new law, individuals and groups who are considered to have supported someone on hunger strike could face up to four years in prison.

If that person dies as a result of their fast the sentence will automatically be increased to 20 years.

Family dilemmas

It is not only doctors and health professionals who will be affected by this legislation.

Family members also face prosecution if they encourage relatives undertaking protest fasts.

For Hatoon Kesser this poses a dilemma.

Her husband Jemal was released from prison last month after 190 days without food.

He is now continuing his hunger strike from the couple's home.

While she supports her husband's actions, Hatoon knows that by doing so she herself risks possible imprisonment.

"It's a real problem now," she said, "because we have a child, and if I was arrested our son would be alone".

The strength of the new legislation is a measure of the government's determination to put an end to this form of protest.

Whatever the motives for introducing this law, it is likely to result in a hardening of attitudes among the hunger strikers and their supporters.

See also:

05 Nov 01 | Europe
Four dead in Turkish police raid
15 Jul 01 | Europe
Turkey halts prison plans
18 Apr 01 | Europe
Turkey's radicals wait for death
10 Jan 01 | Europe
Shadow hangs over Turkish jails
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