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
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 continue.
Prisoners starving themselves may sound irrational, but it makes sense when a
hunger strike is the only thing that might keep prison officials from
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 -
psychological -- will increase.
Why do U.S. citizens have a role in pressuring Turkish officials to abandon
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
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
fight to stay alive. If we put the heat not just on Turkish officials, but
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: http://www.geocities.com/humanrightstoday/prison.html
Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.