Turkish political prisoners hunger strike for improved conditions, 1989

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The exact day the strikers ended the hunger strike is unknown. Some sources claim late August while others say early September.
late June
1989
to
early September
1989
Location and Goals
Country: 
Turkey
Location City/State/Province: 
Throughout Turkey
Location Description: 
various prisons
Goals: 
The protesters' goal was to ease the harsh measures the Turkish government had imposed on the prisons (via the 1988 decree). These harsh measures included strict regulations on food packages, visiting hours, and even reading material. Additionally, Turkish prisons were notorious for torturous practices, which the protesters sought to terminate immediately.
 

From late June to early September 1989, nearly 2,000 Turkish prisoners underwent a hunger strike. They protested against an August 1988 decree that instituted very harsh measures within the prison system. The Turkish government imposed the decree after 47 prisoners had escaped. Additionally, in June 1989, prison officials found two unfinished escape tunnels and, as a result, imposed even harsher measures.

In late June and early July, a small group of prisoners began the hunger strike (in which participants only ingested sugared water and salt) with the goal of easing the harsh regulations. This small strike spread to 12 prisons and encompassed approximately 2,000 prisoners in less than a month. The demonstrators were almost all leftist political advocates or members of the outlawed Kurdish Labor Party.

In the first week of August, Justice Minister Oltan Sungurlu accepted most of the strikers’ demands with regards to easing the harsh regulations. But he did not want to allow prisoners to receive outside food packages nor receive more lenient visiting rights. The prisoners were not satisfied, and they continued striking.

By the second week in August, two of the hunger strikers were dead, ten were in life-threatening condition, and seventy-two were hospitalized. The two deaths received international attention, as well as attention from Human Rights Watch. The two men, Mehmet Yalcinkaya and Huseyin Husnu Eroglu, died after the prison officers transferred them, along with 260 other prisoners, to Aydin Prison. The officers allegedly chained the prisoners together on the ride over and once there, brutally beat many of the prisoners. Yalcinkaya and Huseyin died shortly thereafter. While the two were indeed participating in the hunger strike, there were very serious allegations that the two were beaten to death.

At this point, the Turkish government agreed to meet some of the prisoners’ demands by outlawing physical punishment in the jails. The hunger strike persisted despite this agreement. The physical punishment previously used (and admitted to) included chaining of prisoners, solitary confinement in dark cells, and bread-and-water diets. Mr. Akin Birdal, Secretary-General of the Turkish Human Rights Association, spoke with the hunger strikers in the Aydin prison around the time of this reform and found, however, that any measures to improve the prison system were extremely slow and would take years to work.

At the end of August, a human rights organization called Helsinki Watch did a report on the Turkish prison system and found that while there was some evidence of improvements, there were still beatings. Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, meanwhile, sought to improve Turkey’s relations with the European Community (as to make the country a member). In order to do so, he wanted to increase the standards of the prison system up to Western European standards. Ozal declared that the government was spending increased parts of its budget on improving prison conditions and punishing those responsible for torture. Additionally, Ozal sought to give inmates more access to lawyers. With this compromise, the hunger strikers ended their two-month-long fast.

Despite these promises, the prison system continued to be unsatisfactory, subject to more hunger strikes in the next two decades as reforms made the prisoners increasingly unhappy.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Turkish political prisoners were most likely influenced by the Irish Republican hunger strike of 1981. (1)

The Turkish hunger strike of 1989 influenced several more hunger strikes in Turkey. (2)

Sources: 
"UNHCR | Refworld | Human Rights Watch World Report 1989 - Turkey." UNHCR Turkey. Refworld, 1 Jan. 1990. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,TUR,,467bb49c1e,0.html>.

Schwartz, Herman, Omer Karasapan, and Joe Stork. Middle East Report. Rep. no. 160. Middle East Research and Information Project, 1989. JSTOR. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

"Turkish Prisoners Hold Hunger Strike." St. Petersburg Times 13 Aug. 1989. Access World News. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

Reuters News Service. "Turkish Jails Relax Rules After Protest." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 14 Aug. 1989. Access World News. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

Overland, Martha Ann. "New Report Says Turkish Prisons Still Oppressive." Washington Post 27 Aug. 1989. Access World News. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

Gurdilek, Rasit. "Fears for Fasting Turkish Prisoners." The Times [London] 15 Aug. 1989. Access World News. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

Additional Notes: 
This campaign began a wave of hunger strikes occurring every five to ten years afterwards.

The hunger strike brought international attention to the terrible conditions in Turkish prisons.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Samantha Bennett, 16/04/2011