Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign's Steve Sweeney was in Ankara last week to observe and report from the trials of HDP co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. He met with trade unions and human rights groups in Ankara and also activists such as the primary school teacher Semih Özakça, who has been on hunger strike for 277 days since he was purged from his post. Here is Steve's blogpost on the meeting, reproduced for International Human Rights Day.
This photograph epitomises how desperate the situation has become in Turkey. I met primary school teacher Semih Özakça in Ankara on Friday. He has been on hunger strike for 277 days since he was purged from his post
Along with Nuriye Gülman he has become a symbol of resistance in Turkey. Their hunger strike has aimed to draw attention to Erdogan’s crackdown on public sector workers, with more than 100,000 sacked since the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
He has survived on water, sugar, salt and vitamin B however remains weak and susceptible to illness. When we visited the apartment we wore face masks and were sprayed with anti-bacterial hand gel. Catching a virus could kill him.
Like so many others he has been branded a terrorist – the catch-all term for anybody who stands up to Erdogan’s oppressive rule in Turkey. His crime? To demand peace, justice and reinstatement to his job.
The State of Emergency (OHAL) which was introduced after the attempted coup has been used as a stick against all layers of society and has effectively granted Erdogan a one man dictatorship as he tightens his vice-like grip on the country. It was recently extended for the fifth time.
President Erdogan rules by decree and people in the country say they regularly check the government website and papers to see if they have been purged – this is how the news of sackings by decree is announced, with some saying they have found out they have lost their jobs by tuning into the radio on their way to work.
Despite its supposed aim of targeting those suspected of plotting the coup attempt, the OHAL has been used to stifle all forms of opposition in Turkey. More than 140,000 public sector workers have lost their jobs, newspapers and media outlets closed and more journalists have been jailed than anywhere else in the world.
And People’s Democratic Party (HDP) MPs, including co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas have been jailed along with 85 mayors and an estimated 10,000 activists.
The government fear that Özakça and Gülman’s cause will be a platform for the kind of broader anti-government protests that were seen during the Gezi uprising in 2013. Their protests initially took place in public at the human rights monument in central Ankara and they were detained numerous times. On March 9 this year they started their hunger strike while in police custody and continued publicly after their release five days later.
However in May as the protests continued to grow, the pair were arrested and charged with alleged membership of the Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) which is deemed a terrorist organisation. They were taken to Ankara’s notorious Sincan prison, one of the many built across the country to house suspected coup plotters.
On December 1 Gülmen was found guilty and sentenced to six years and three months in prison however the court ordered her release pending an appeal. She was cleared of lesser charges including organising illegal rallies. Özkakça was acquitted of similar charges however is effectively under house arrest and is forced to wear an electronic tag for the rest of the trial.
As more teachers and academics have suffered under the purges – more than 8,000 have been sacked by decree since July 2016 – they, along with other trade unionists and progressives have also been arrested for protests which raised the simple demand: “I want my job back.”
Said Yüce, an MP for the ruling AKP said of the protests: “There is no place for hunger strike in religon”.
While in a statement following the arrests, Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu said: “We do not send our children to the school to get them educated as terrorists.”
His wife Esra, who has also been on hunger strike, explained that she had been dismissed from her job for visiting him while in prison. She has suffered constant harassment from the police and has been held in custody a number of times, including five days for sharing a tweet in support of husband.
Özakça told me: “My wife was sacked from her job for coming and visiting me and I just found out that another lecturer from the university who came to see me was sacked as well.
“They are trying to isolate us from the community by making people afraid to stand with us, or even to visit us. They want them to be afraid.
“It is the 275th day of our hunger strike. But pressure from international bodies may be useful.”
In s statement, the families of the pair said: “Let Nuriye and Semih and the people who are supporting them and resisting state violence know that they are not alone.
“Their struggle and this trial is very important for the history of democratic struggle of the people of Turkey and the world.
“Your presence will empower us in this legitimate struggle against the unjust purges in Turkey and our demand for justice.”
They have urged international supporters to attend the trial and lend their voices to the struggle.