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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The King's Threshold

He has chosen death:
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom, that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another's threshold till he die,
The common people, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King's.
- W. B. Yeats


Robin Kirk • Human Rights In Turkey, 13 November 2006

Every November 10 at 9:05 am, Turkey stops. It literally stops.

While walking, I heard the first sirens begin to wail to commemorate the exact time that Turkey's great man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, died in 1938. At that moment, every bus braked; every bread seller laid down the tongs and stood at attention; every pedestrian stopped, even in the middle of a street; and every street sweeper, butcher, lawyer, student and even (in this case) foreign observer froze.

This lady (above), in up-scale Nisantasi, actually stood in front of a bus, something no sane Turk would do at any other moment in the year.

I've written earlier about the astonishing things Ataturk did to create modern Turkey. It is something else entirely to witness how his legacy and image continues to be deployed so aggressively. A huge amount of political, cultural and social capital is invested in maintaining the “cult of Ataturk.” Every day, I must see an image of Ataturk 100 times, from stamps and postcards to posters, silhouettes, billboards and the building-high banners unfurled on national days. Who is producing all of this iconography? And who is policing how and where and how densely it is displayed?

At least in the brief time we have been here, we have not seen a single example of Ataturk’s image being ridiculed or “othered” in any way. For Americans, perhaps only Abraham Lincoln or FDR would animate the same feelings; these are politicians who radically remade the United States in times of great strife and uncertainty, much as Ataturk did for Turkey. But these US presidents are ridiculed constantly. While writing these lines, I thought: “What would be a ridiculous image of Lincoln? How about Lincoln in a bikini?" Sure enough, Googling it reveals that the “Drake and Josh” show recently featured a competition to see if Drake could paint a picture of Abraham Lincoln in a bikini faster than Josh could stack 150 cans of tuna into a pyramid.

Not even in Cuba is the cult of an individual leader so pronounced. When we lived in Havana in the summer of 2000, I was struck by the propaganda, but it was always at the service of "the Revolution," not an individual leader (even Fidel). I imagine that I would have to go to a place like North Korea, where Kim Il Jong is everywhere; or perhaps Turkmenistan, now being remade according to the strange will of Saparmurat Niyazov, “Turkmenbashi the Great,” is like Ataturk through a cracked glass. Now “President for Life,” he has renamed the months (January after himself) ; mandated the closure of all hospitals outside the capital; funded several golden statues of himself, which rotate to always face the sun; and closed rural libraries, since his countrymen “don’t read.”

As I listened to 73 million people stand still, I wondered: does the flamboyance of how Turks commemorate Ataturk’s death honor the radical potential in each individual, how a single person can remake the world?

Then I thought: what if I keep walking while everyone else stands still? A hundred eyes would turn to me; a hundred disapproving glares. Even a yabanci, Turkish for foreigner, is supposed to stand still. So perhaps this isn’t about the radical potential of an individual, but rather the power of a group to create an ideal and compel fealty. The individual, Ataturk, is long gone; but the purpose to which he is put, Turkish nationalism, is intensifying. The ones behind it are not Ataturk's colleagues, long dead – but their grandsons and granddaughters, who promulgate the images not only on special days, but in the school curricula, in the media and, as importantly, through the mechanism of group behavior (i.e. I remained perfectly still for as long as the sirens blared).

Human rights activists and thinkers I have been interviewing lately agree that Turkey is becoming more, not less nationalist. I don't know for sure, but I wonder if there are actually more images of Ataturk around than there were thirty or even fifty years ago. Certainly, nationalists are taking advantage of the particular moment – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, obstacles in gaining entry into the European Union, a rising anti-Muslim trend in the West – to use the image to argue that Turkey should look to its former Ottoman vassals and Islamic countries for alliances, not the West. That would also allow Turkey to sidestep the serious human rights problems that the troubled EU process has highlighted: limits on freedom of expression, torture, so-called “honor killings” of women by their families, among other things.

The question of the radical potential of the individual versus "group think" was also on my mind this week because of a very different image: a hunger striker. Behi� Asci (above), a lawyer who once represented political prisoners, is approaching the eighth month of a hunger strike. Asci and his supporters are protesting conditions in Turkey’s F-type prisons, first introduced in 2000 and meant to house people convicted under the country’s Anti-Terrorism laws.

According to Human Rights Watch, the F-type prisons impose:

a regime whereby prisoners remain in their cells, shared with from two to five other inmates, for lengthy periods of time with no other human contact and little or no possibility for activities, proper exercise, or educational programs. In fact, most prisoners …typically sit in their cell for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with only the possibility of a half-hour family visit once a week… Prisoners rarely see human beings other than their cell-mates and rarely if ever leave their cell. Prisoners' families and former prisoners reported that meals are usually delivered under or through the door. Although some cells are permitted to have a television or radio, no facilities are provided for proper exercise or sport, and no access is provided to a library or canteen. Therefore, apart from weekly family visits lasting half an hour, prisoners have no social-or even visual-contact with any person outside their cell.

The family of seventeen-year-old Yunus �alis told HRW that he had become very depressed and withdrawn as a result of isolation. “I feel as if I am in a grave here - the only way out is to join a hunger strike or burn myself.”

After I read this, I wondered: do isolation condition amount to torture? The 1984 Convention defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." (The emphasis is mine.) Turkey ratified the convention in 1988. Today, I found the most recent report on conditions, published by the Council of Europe's Commission on the Prevention of Torture.

Since prolonged isolation can inflict severe mental suffering and is part of the punishment, I think the answer is clearly yes.

Asci is not alone. Like him, hundreds of Turks have started hunger strikes to protest the F-type prisons. Asci says he will take no food until the government reforms and allows prisoners to have some contact. The day we visited, Asci had not eaten for 217 days. He drinks a bit of carefully regulated water, sugar, lemon juice and some salts daily. Since beginning the strike, he has gone from 168 to 118 pounds.

The value of the hunger strike as protest depends on the concept of an individual life having infinite merit. At any given moment in the world, there are dozens of hunger strikes under way. For example, this October, six members of the Azerbaijani Azadliq (Liberty) party began a hunger strike to demanding a free press; in 2005 and 2006, over 100 prisoners at the US detention center at Gu�ntanamo staged successive hunger strikes to protest conditions, winning some concessions, but also prompting US authorities to engage in abusive countermeasures, like force-feeding.

On Texas’ death row, about a dozen men are currently fasting to protest conditions at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, about 45 miles from the death chamber at Huntsville. Conditions there are similar to the ones in Turkey’s F-type prisons. For instance, inmates are subjected to 23-hour lockdowns and are not allowed to take part in group recreation, art programs or religious services. They can't even watch television. As the New York Times reported recently, Huntsville is the nation’s busiest execution complex. “Twenty-three inmates have been put to death by lethal injection so far this year and another is scheduled to die Wednesday. Although California leads the nation in prisoners on death row, Texas executes them far more frequently, with 378 put to death since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1982. Virginia is second with 97.”

If you look up “hunger strike” on Wikipedia, you will see that Ireland is one place where the hunger strike has a long history. But in modern times, it was Mahatma Gandhi who put it firmly into the toolbox of activists committed to nonviolence. His two hunger strikes were considered pivotal moments in the quest for Indian independence and compelled the attention of no less a political leader than Winston Churchill (who according to recently revealed documents advocated letting Gandhi die).

Perhaps the most famous hunger strike – for my generation, at least – was sustained by the IRA in 1980 and 1981. In all, ten IRA members died while on strike in Maze Prison, demanding a prisoner-of-war-like Special Category Status for their members, among other things. Some of hunger strikers, among the Bobby Sands, were elected to both the Irish and British parliaments by voters protesting the British government’s unwillingness to negotiate. The prisoner who lasted longest was Kieran Doherty (below), who died after 73 days of ingesting only water and salt. The hunger strikes gave a huge propaganda boost to the Provisional IRA.

But this Turkish hunger strike is different. For one, it is the longest running hunger strike in modern history. Turks have been striking in waves since October 2000. So far, 122 people have starved themselves to death.

As remarkably, the individuals themselves last longer than any other strikers. Normally, a person will live sixty to seventy days on a water and salt-only diet (and no more than ten without any fluids, though research on this is thin). But the Turks have crafted a regime of dosed amounts of water, tea, lemon juice and potassium chloride that dramatically extend their lives – and their suffering. They also prepare to starve, first teaching their bodies privation by binging and purging before refusing food altogether.

Scott Anderson wrote about the strikers in 2001, one year into the protest. The article is still eerily relevant. In “The Hunger Warriors,” published in the New York Times (you have to pay to get it), he pointed out that the Turkish hunger strikers are “pioneers in the field of human starvation… Which, of course, is another way of saying that they suffer exponentially more, because now the most painful stages of starvation -- the initial intense hunger, followed by the excruciating ache of limbs as muscles deteriorate and constrict, followed by the internal bleeding as visceral organs are destroyed -- endure for that much longer.”

Asci has now lasted three times as long as Kieran Doherty. But his protest has not had any of the impact that the IRA protest did. And that is another peculiarity -- this hunger strike is almost completely ignored and, so far, has been entirely ineffective. Asci is cared for in his office, about two blocks from Europe’s largest mall, Cevahir (complete with Starbucks, designer clothing stores and a roller coaster). Metecem at Istanbul’s Metroblog posted a good description here. The contrast couldn’t be more stark: a “death fast,” as the Turkish protestors call it, beside a modern temple of conspicuous consumption and Western modernity. Occasionally, there will be a mention of the “death fast” in the newspaper; but most Turks dismiss the fast as the actions of a tiny, cult-like and irrelevant group.

Certainly, that was my first impression. The hunger strike is backed the DHKP/C, or the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front, Devrimci Sol (Dev Sol). On the State Department’s list of “terrorist groups,” the DHKP/C used to control several of the dormitory-style prisons where militants were housed, meaning that these became prime recruiting and training facilities. With the violent imposition of F-type prisons in 2000, the party lost a key base. Skeptics wonder if the protest, then, is also a way to get the government to loosen up on them and allow them to work the prisons again.

Many of the strikers – and the dead, at this point – were not prisoners at the time of their fasts – and were perhaps not even DHKP/C members. But they either began fasting after release (sometimes continuing a fast begun while in prison) or are “solidarity fasters,” who have never been in an F-type prison. For awhile, many were very young women, raising the horrible possibility that, at a very impressionable age, they had learned that the only way to be valued as true militants was to starve themselves to death (with the uncomfortable parallels to girls suffering from anorexia and bulemia).

So, as with the moment commemorating Ataturk’s death, does a kind of peer pressure, “group think,” also motivate much of the “death fast”? In a recent opinion piece about Nicaragua, conservative columnist �lvaro Vargas Llosa makes a distinction between the “vegetarian left” (the crunchy granolas, as I would add) and the “carnivorous left,” the hard-liners who accept and promote bloodshed as a means to a political end – with its record of bombings and killings, the DHKP/C is definitely the latter.

Asci himself is not, at least publicly, a party militant, but a lawyer who has represented many current and former political prisoners sent to F-type facilities. He is single, childless, and in his early forties -- and therefore is in an entirely different category that the female "angels" who once provided the DHKP/C with its most wrenching imagery. To us, Asci described his decision to join the fast in eloquent, straight-forward terms. Again and again, he said, he fought for better treatment for his clients, only to be completely ignored by the prison authorities and government officials. For years, he would collect information from his clients, file motions, and appear in court – only to receive form-letter style responses. His clients went crazy from the isolation conditions or were beaten senseless. Finally, the sense of powerlessness convinced him that the only way to truly help them was by becoming a hunger striker himself.

But is this “death fast,” with few paying attention and so many casualties, the right way to proceed? According to the DHKP/C people assisting Asci, there are now at least 12 F-type prisons operating in Turkey. So during the “death fast,” Turkey has increased the use of these facilities. The protest is not working and shows little promise of working in the future. As disheartening, it seems that the best mechanism to spur change, Turkey’s desire to become part of the EU, is not effective. Both Europe and the US have F-type prisons. In Spain, they are called FIES facilities while in the US we called them Supermaxes. In the climate of the “war on terror,” it seems highly unlikely that this will change.

There is a wrong here, without doubt -- but what is the best tactic to address it? Dying for a cause, with no real hope of success, is not heroic -- it is tragic, and tragically misguided.

This has been a long and exhausting post, with many loose ends. For now, I’ll finish with what I am absolutely sure about: prolonged isolation in prisons anywhere amount to torture. Here is a model letter I used to write Turkey’s Justice Minister, urging him to end prolonged isolation in Turkey. It could easily be revised and sent to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Please feel free to use it:

His Excellency Cemil �i�ek
Adalet Bakani
Adalet Bakanligi
PK. 06659
Kizilay, Ankara

Fax: +90 312 418 5667

Dear Minister �i�ek,

I am writing out of concern for prisoners living in isolation conditions at F-type prisons in Turkey.

Turkey has made important progress in the protection of human rights. I especially want to welcome your government’s commitment to “dynamic and continuous reform,” declared by Deputy Prime Minister G�l on April 11, 2006. Mr G�l went on to say that “the important thing is the direction in which we are going. The reform process must be kept consistently dynamic.”

I support the view that the reform process needs to maintain momentum. Therefore, I would respectfully like to draw you attention to needed reforms in the area of F-type prison management. Prolonged isolation and the deprivation of reading materials, visits and exercise can amount to torture according to the Convention against Torture, which Turkey ratified in 1988.

While prison officials need to maintain security in these facilities, they have an equally important responsibility to maintain and defend the fundamental dignity and rights of the prisoners, which include the right to not be subjected to cruel, degrading treatment.

I am well aware that Turkey faces serious problems from armed opposition groups that have carried out indiscriminate or targeted attacks on civilians. Turkey is fully within its rights to capture and prosecute those responsible, and according to its laws remand them to prison facilities.

However, Turkey is also bound by the international conventions it has signed to insure that those individuals, either awaiting trial or convicted, are treated humanely and fairly and are not subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.

Thank you,



This essay was first published at the blog, Human Rights in Turkey, and is carried here with permission from the author.




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