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Published on Wednesday, December 20, 2000
US Should Use It's Leverage To Aid Turkish Hunger Strikers
by Robert Jensen
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 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 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:

Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at


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