Around 700 detainees at more than 50 prisons are surviving on salted or sweetened water and vitamins alone in a strike that has gained momentum since it began with several dozen detainees last month.
Among the strikers are several leaders of the chief Kurdish party, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). They are accused of ties to the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has for decades sought autonomy for the Kurds.
“The strikers’ situation is deteriorating with every day,” a Human Rights Association (IHD) official told AFP, saying the inmates had been mistreated but without providing details.
He said the government needed to act to bring about an end to the protest, a call that was echoed in the press and by main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who implored the strikers to abandon their action while also addressing the government’s role.
“I am asking the party in power to be more sensitive to these people’s requests,” he was quoted as saying in Friday’s English-language Hurriyet Daily News.
Several dozen Kurdish detainees began the strike on September 12, the anniversary of a military coup in 1980, with a host of demands including the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and an end to Kurdish language restrictions.
– ‘Give up this action’ –
With the pressure on, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin paid an unexpected visit Wednesday, on the eve of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, to an Ankara prison where strikers are being held and called on them to halt their action.
“For the well-being of your body, your health, your families: give up this action,” he said.
He said the conservative Islamist-rooted government was listening to the strikers and that it could allow Kurds appearing in court to have the right to defend themselves in their mother tongue, which is one of their demands.
But he offered no concessions on another demand: the authorisation of the use of Kurdish in all public places. This is a tough demand for the government to satisfy, even if there have been big steps forward in recent years in the area of Kurdish cultural rights as Turkey bids to join the European Union.
The strikers are also calling for the release of Ocalan, who has been serving out a life sentence in a remote island prison since 1999.
On Friday, BDP leaders sought permission from officials to visit Ocalan.
The party’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtas said “a major step would be taken” toward putting an end to the hunger strike if they were able to ask Ocalan to intervene.
Demirtas said the hunger strikes would come to an end if his party is allowed to prepare the ground for negotiations with Ocalan.
“There will be no solution unless a leader of a people is set free, and mother-tongue education is allowed,” Demirtas was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet newspaper on Sunday.
Reached by AFP, the justice ministry declined to comment on the possibility of such a visit, which would be a first, but a source close to the government said the authorities were doing all they could to end the hunger strike, adding that none of the strikers’ lives are in danger.
“The government must put an end to Ocalan’s isolation and immediately, without wasting time, take the necessary steps to end this tragedy,” columnist Oral Calislar wrote in the Radikal daily.
The strike comes amid a major escalation in fighting between Kurdish rebels and the army, with no political solution in sight to a dispute that has spanned decades.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and by much of the international community, took up arms for autonomy in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hardened his position on the Kurdish issue following deadly attacks by the PKK last year, has also said his government was ready to resume negotiations with the rebel group that were launched in 2010.
Since 1980 at least 144 prisoners in Turkey have died in hunger strikes, according to an IHD statement, 28 of them during the government’s brutal crackdown on an inmate strike against new prison conditions in 2000.