US should use its leverage to aid Turkish hunger strikers

By Robert Jensen

Published in Common Dreams · December, 2000

On Tuesday, Turkish military police assaulted over 1000 political prisoners on hunger strike,
in over 20 prisons. At least 25 of the prisoners, many of whom had not eaten for 61 days,
were killed during the assault.

At this time, hundreds of them, held incommunicado in prisons and hospitals, weakened
from the assault and the hunger strike, are in imminent danger of death.

Americans reading this should care — indeed, must care — about this tragedy because it is
only with U.S. support that such human-rights abuses by the Turkish government can

Prisoners starving themselves may sound irrational, but it makes sense when a hunger
strike is the only thing that might keep prison officials from moving you into isolation cells,
where worse fates await. In situations this desperate, the only thing the prisoners have left
to put on the line is, quite literally, their own bodies. If anything, the excessive use of force
by the Turkish government against starving prisoners only validates the arguments they
were making all along.

The prisoners, many of who are in jail simply for belonging to groups that oppose Turkey’s
military-dominated government, currently live in large dormitories that hold 20 to 80
prisoners. Those numbers are the only protection prisoners have from the brutality of the
guards; as documented by human rights groups, torture is “widespread and systematic” in
Turkish prisons.

Turkish officials, who cynically call the new cells “humane and luxurious,” say they won’t
back down. Human-rights groups and prisoners agree that when prisoners are moved to
such isolation cells, beatings and torture – physical and psychological — will increase.

Why do U.S. citizens have a role in pressuring Turkish officials to abandon their plans and
allow the political prisoners to return to their previous living arrangements? There are 8.3
billion reasons.

As a key link in U.S. strategy to dominate the Middle East, Turkey has long been a client of
the United States. According to independent researchers using government figures, since
1993 President Clinton has approved $8.3 billion worth of weapon sales and giveaways to
Turkey. After Israel and Egypt (by far the leading recipients of U.S. aid), Turkey has raked in
the most U.S. foreign aid, displaced in that spot only recently by Colombia.

Without that money and those weapons, Turkey would not have been able to prosecute a
13-year counterinsurgency war against its Kurdish population in the southeast that killed
more than 35,000 people, while at the same time maintaining a police state in the rest of
the country. Without constant U.S. diplomatic and political support, Turkey would have
come under severe international censure for its many human-rights abuses.

The United States enables those atrocities, and it could use its influence to stop them but
simply has chosen not to. The State Department’s 1999 human-rights report acknowledged
serious problems with extra-judicial killings, “including deaths due to excessive force and
deaths in detention due to torture… Torture, beatings, and other abuses by security forces
remained widespread.” Such routine crimes at most lead to statements by U.S. officials
about the need to respect human rights, but the aid and weapons continue to flow.

That’s the paradox: The aid that has helped Turkey repress its own people now could
provide the leverage for U.S. citizens to help the Turkish prisoners in their fight to stay alive.
If we put the heat not just on Turkish officials, but also on U.S. representatives, the standoff
could be resolved without the political prisoners having to make good on their threat to
starve themselves.

A similar hunger strike in 1996 ended with a promise by the Turkish government not to move
the prisoners, but only after 12 had died. With the death-toll still rising this time, the
prisoners need international support more than ever. More information, including details on
how to help, are available at: