November 10 at 9:05 am, Turkey
stops. It literally stops.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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).
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.
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.
Behiç 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
Rights Watch, the F-type prisons impose:
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.
family of seventeen-year-old Yunus Çalis 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.”
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
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.
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 Guántanamo staged successive
strikes to protest conditions, winning some
concessions, but also prompting US authorities to
engage in abusive countermeasures, like force-feeding.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
mall, Cevahir (complete with Starbucks, designer
clothing stores and a roller coaster). Metecem at
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
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
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).
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 Álvaro
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
It could easily be revised and sent to Texas
Gov. Rick Perry. Please feel free to use it:
Excellency Cemil Çiçek
Fax: +90 312 418 5667
am writing out of concern for prisoners living in
isolation conditions at F-type prisons in Turkey.
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 Gül on April
11, 2006. Mr Gül went on to say that “the
important thing is the direction in which we are
going. The reform process must be kept consistently
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
am well aware that Turkey
faces serious problems from armed opposition
groups that have carried out indiscriminate or targeted
attacks on civilians. Turkey
fully within its rights to capture and prosecute
those responsible, and according to its laws remand
them to prison facilities.
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.
essay was first published at the blog, Human
Rights in Turkey, and is carried here with
permission from the author.
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