IN TURKEY THEY CAN DIE AS LONG AS THEY DO NOT THINK
The detention by Turkish security forces of Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein MLA, and other individuals who recently formed a delegation to monitor the hunger strike by left wing prisoners in Turkey is hardly surprising. It is an indication of how alarmed the government of that particular country is at concern generated abroad. It is also an exercise in intimidating those who might wish to ask awkward questions about the treatment of prisoners in Turkish jails. But perhaps more ominous than the actual arrests is that the response to them in particular from sources in the USA, Ireland and Britain. This underlines how, in the aftermath of the recent genocide perpetrated on American soil, efforts are studiously being made to close down much political dissent. We either accept the West's inflated and non-culpable view of itself or face the cold wind of isolation - worse perhaps.
The Turkish visit by a delegation that included Alex Maskey was always going to prove problematic. It is to his credit that he went. Not everyone wanted to risk a tarnished reputation by making that politically precarious journey. Maskey did so fully cognisant that in the wake of the attack on the US, highlighting the grievances of people opposed to American government foreign policy amongst other things was never going to run as a cause celebre. Furthermore, after the furore generated by the arrest of three republicans in the Colombian debacle any association - no matter how tenuous - with Marxist guerrillas would always ignite the indignation of the powerful political elite.
Prior to all of this Sinan Ersoy had visited Belfast in a bid to raise support for those on hunger strike, one of who was his own brother Bulent. He shared a platform with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, at Casement Park - a sign of just how much interest the hunger strike has generated within republican circles. He also asked to address a gathering at the Culturlann where people had assembled for the launch of a book. His was the most intense delivery of the evening.
Later, along with a colleague he visited my home in West Belfast and agreed to be interviewed for The Blanket. One of the first questions I put to him concerned the seeming lack of support for the organisations in Turkey to which the protesting prisoners belong. Sinan quickly refuted this and based his argument on the apparent existence of a powerful Turkish state propaganda offensive aimed at creating an impression of resistance in the country as being marginalised. He illustrated this by reference to similar strategies employed by the British state during its war against the IRA. He emphatically made the point that were the assertions about marginalisation true why then were journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, community leaders and artists - all capable of articulating social opposition - also being held in F-Type prisons?
He feels that the political establishment in his country regards the crushing of the prison resistance as a strategic imperative given that 'the prisoners are the representatives of the people' and the Turkish state must crush that representation and leadership. Because Turkey is subject to 'rule by imperialism' the revolutionary groups are the only hope of emancipation. Hence the government's determination to crush the revolt in the prisons and turn them into a form of knacker's yard for the revolution. From the point of view of the Turkish revolutionary groups, an additional reason for crushing the prisoners is the embarrassment their opposition causes the Turkish Government in the eyes of its European and American financial backers. Turkey is of major strategic significance to the West as was demonstrated during the Gulf War. 'This is a major reason to depoliticise and silence opposition', Sinan claims.
He then went on to contrast the ways in which administrative discrimination is at play within the prison regime, arguing that the penal authorities seem to have little difficulty watching their regime being subverted by mafia prisoners who have access to guns. The reason for this he argues is that the mafia pose no threat to the political stability of what he calls the 'fascist state'.
The objective of the prisoners is one of collectively self-determining their own life and regime within the prisons. On this, I put it to Sinan Ersoy that the F-type prisons were a considerable improvement on the conditions in the old dormitory style accommodation. In fact Daniel Cohn-Bendit after a visit to the prisons expressed horror at the old regime arguing that conditions for prisoners were horrendous - severe overcrowding and the like. Sinan conceded this point but maintained that there was vast room for improvement within those conditions rather than destroy them altogether. He claimed that whereas prisoners disliked the old physical conditions the psychological repression in the F-type regime is even more objectionable. Prisoners feel very vulnerable and devoid of any mechanisms of communal self-defence - considered necessary in a country such as Turkey with its atrocious human rights record. For example, a 1999 report by an EU Commission's stated that 'There are serious shortcomings in terms of human rights . . . Torture ... is still widespread and freedom of expression is regularly restricted by the authorities.' Furthermore, under Turkish repressive legislation people can be labelled 'terrorist' and imprisoned without trial for many years if they merely attend meetings, rallies, write for or sell newspapers organised by any of the groups who fall foul of the government. Amnesty International has also lent its voice to the range of bodies now questioning the human rights situation in Turkey.
Sinan Ersoy expresses his appreciation at the efforts of Irish activists to raise the profile and awareness about the hunger strike. The Irish, he claims, 'know the reality, the feeling and the emotion'. He is especially generous in his praise of former republican prisoners and in particular Alex McCrory who has been responsible for organising much of the Irish solidarity activity.
'If prisoners in Turkey win the crucial human rights battle and official recognition is given to their victory then it will be a major landmark for other struggles throughout the world'.
There are about 11 left-wing groups involved in the anti-F-types protest, the majority of which do not advocate the use of force. There are up to 12,000 political prisoners being held in Turkey. The country has a history of hunger strikes. In 1984 in a battle against prison uniforms motivated by the 1981 Irish hunger strike four prisoners succumbed to death. In 1996 another hunger strike, this time against isolation, saw the deaths of 12 people including the first woman to die on a hunger strike.
In December last year in an operation cynically codenamed ''Return To Life' Turkish security forces attacked 20 prisons. The objective was to transfer the inmates to F-type isolation units. Thirty-two people were killed during the four-day operation, including two soldiers.
The mother of one of those involved in the protests pondered: 'how can our government do this to our children, try to stop them thinking?' But the onslaught on ideas and thinking is precisely what repressive governments do. For many of them, it is preferable that you die rather than think.