Political prisoners in Turkey

Vicious state assault resisted

Early on Tuesday December 19, the military and police forces of the Turkish state launched a massive attack on about 20 of the country's prisons to bring an end to a death fast by hundreds of political prisoners.

In some prisons fighting was still continuing on Wednesday morning as the prisoners defended themselves desperately against attackers who outnumbered them 10 or 20 to one. Information coming out is fragmentary, but there are details of indescribable horror - Ahmet Ibili in Umraniye Prison setting himself on fire as the soldiers approached, who then shot dead the human torch that was staggering around in front of them; and past prison massacres in Turkey suggest that the troops and police are behaving barbarically to the prisoners, while the whole operation is being presented as a "rescue" by the Turkish government. Barbarity is all the more likely because the prisoners have succeeded in killing two of their attackers. The DHKP-C (Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front) issued a statement to the effect that there were 20 to 25 dead prisoners, as of Tuesday evening, but this figure may well go much higher. Most of the martyrs are DHKP-C, as far as is known.

There have been protest actions throughout Europe, and in Turkey itself the supporters of the prisoners have been demonstrating, although there have been hundreds of arrests. The TV images in Turkey are full of police beating and arresting demonstrators. In London a British policeman was injured at a picket of the Turkish embassy the same day after police provoked demonstrators at a protest where feelings were in any case running high. The offices of a pro-government newspaper and the European Commission were occupied. In Switzerland, there was an occupation of parliament by protestors. There have been numerous other protest actions in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Ireland.

What is the background to the protests and the massive attempt at repression? Since October 20, a hunger strike has been going on in the prisons of Turkey among political inmates belonging to the DHKP-C, the TKP(ML) (Communist Party of Turkey (Marxist-Leninist)) and the TKIP (Communist Workers Party of Turkey). On and around November 19, the hunger strike was turned into a death fast like the one in May-July 1996, which took place for similar reasons and cost the lives of 12 prisoners.

The latest death fast is the culmination of bitter controversy in Turkey concerning the government's attempts to introduce the so-called 'F' type prisons. A number of these prisons have actually been built and more are being constructed. The special feature of these prisons is that they consist of isolation cells for individual prisoners, although some are two- or four-person cells. The government is especially keen to introduce these cells for political prisoners and has spent the equivalent of many millions of pounds on building them, at a time when many survivors of the devastating August 1999 earthquake are struggling through a second winter in tents.

The accommodation areas of prisons in Turkey have traditionally been built as dormitories, not as cells. These dormitories are overcrowded and diseases spread fast in them. On the other hand, prisoners are not isolated from each other and collective arrangements are much easier than is the case in western jails. A source of concern for the government is that political prisoners organise in their dormitories, and people accused or convicted of membership of banned organisations are usually placed in the same dormitories as others accused of being in the same group. So in the existing jails, all the prisoners tried as DHKP-C are put in the same dormitory together, and so on.

The effect is that an individual's loyalty to the group tends to harden during their stay in prison. Somebody might be arrested, tortured and sent to jail as a more or less loose sympathiser of a group (in Turkey, you can be accused of "aiding an illegal organisation" simply because a particular magazine or newspaper has been found in your bag during a police search). However, a few years in prison in contact with convinced revolutionaries is likely to make such a sympathiser into a dedicated militant. It is this process that the government fears, and it is why they want to put prisoners in isolation cells rather than dormitories.

Naturally, revolutionary prisoners do not want their organisations undermined, and there is also the factor of personal safety. Again and again, security personnel (often military gendarmes or riot cops brought in specially) have assaulted and murdered political prisoners in the course of 'operations'. Over the years, both revolutionaries and Kurdish nationalists have been attacked in this way. The worst recent example was the September 1999 Ulucanlar prison massacre. Revolutionary prisoners had held a protest about prison overcrowding, and they were then attacked by gendarmes and riot police who killed 10 prisoners with beatings, gunshots and torture, and wounded many more.

There were smaller-scale attacks in July this year at Burdur and Bergama prisons. In Burdur, 50 prisoners were wounded in an attack by guards, police and gendarmes, and one prisoner had his arm cut off by the blade of the bulldozer the guards were using for the attack. The severed human arm was then fed to a dog by the guards.

These attacks on prisoners happened in dormitories where prisoners could come to each other's aid and repel the attacks for a while. Isolation cells will make it easier for the state to attack, torture and kill them without the process turning into a set-piece battle the way it tends to in the existing prisons. This explains the bitterness of the current resistance - of the 10 prisoners killed at Ulucanlar, seven belonged to the three organisations whose prisoners are now on the death fast.

There have been solidarity hunger strikes and demonstrations both in Turkey and in Europe. Some solidarity hunger strikers in Britain and Europe were on their 35th day on December 18, the day before the latest assault, and in Turkey numerous relatives or friends of prisoners who are not themselves in jail have actually joined the death fast.

Before the massive attack started, the first martyrs had already occurred among their supporters - two had been killed in Turkey (one TKP(ML), the other MLKP or Marxist-Leninist Communist Party), and the 22-year-old DHKP-C sympathiser Cafer Dereli was stabbed to death by Grey Wolves fascists on December 9 while taking part in a solidarity hunger strike in Rotterdam, Holland. The Turkish government had previously switched on the fascist groups to attack protesters within the country, alongside the police. The murder of Cafer Dereli was the same policy transferred to foreign soil.

The regime has attempted to stop any coverage of the death fast at all. It has also used the media for disinformation, including the newspaper Hurriyet, which is close to Turkey's state security service, the MIT. This was no doubt a factor in the occupation of the London office of the newspaper by protesters on December 15.

The death fast resistance, and the protests, are still going on and will go on. The European left, which has shown little solidarity with the death fast resisters during a protest that was continuing for two months before the attack, needs to wake up. This is one of the world's first major revolutionary battles of the 21st century. In the coming days and weeks I and others will be seeking to obtain solidarity for this struggle.

Steve Kaczynski

email solidarity messages and forward protests to:     jogiches11@hotmail.com     ikm_london@yahoo.com