During the week of December 19-26, 2000, 10,000 Turkish soldiers violently occupied 48 prisons to end two months of hunger strikes and “death fasts” by hundreds of political prisoners. The hunger strikers are protesting the state’s plan to transfer its prisoners from large wards to US-style “F-type” cells holding one to three occupants. Operation “Return to Life”—which left at least 31 prisoners and two soldiers dead—lasted a few hours in most prisons, and up to three days at one prison. Eight prisoners are reportedly “disappeared,” and at least 426 prisoners have been wounded. 1,005 prisoners have been transferred to F-type cells.
The armed operation ostensibly aimed to “rescue” members of illegal, radical left organizations from “forced” starvation at the hands of their leaders. But the official number of prisoners conducting death fasts has reportedly increased to 353 since the operation, up from 282. Unofficial reports say that up to 2,000 prisoners are starving themselves, with the active support of 10,000 others. Human rights groups suspect security forces of burning prisoners with firebombs during the operation. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, some bodies were buried without being identified, and other deceased prisoners’ families and lawyers were not admitted to the autopsies. As many prisoners are in critical condition with burns and other injuries, and others are continuing death fasts, the death toll from Operation Return to Life will likely increase. The government is now looking for ways to “forcibly treat” the hunger strikers, in clear violation of international medical ethics, which prohibit medical interventions without the patient’s consent.
Operation Return to Life reflects Turkey’s deeper political crisis as the country bids for membership in the European Union (EU) and attempts a cautious democratic transition. Efforts at democratization run up against the legacy of the military junta that ruled Turkey from 1980-83, crushed the left and increased oppression in the Kurdish southeast—provoking the conflict with the PKK that has claimed around 35,000 lives. The constitution adopted during this period—which remains intact to this day—established the “supervisory” role of the military over the political system, lending an authoritarian bent to all subsequent civilian governments. Recently, all indications suggest that the military and hardline nationalists have decided to overtly resist, and if possible to reverse, the process of democratization in Turkey.
Turkey’s Prison Regime
Prisons in Turkey have been widely criticized for failing to meet international standards of proper infrastructure, and implementing extrajudicial punishment of prisoners. Since the military coup of 1980, political prisoners have protested poor conditions through numerous hunger strikes, death fasts and riots. From 1980-95, 460 prisoners died from torture, armed operations, lack of medical care or death fasts. 27 prisoners have died from death fasts since 1980, 12 in 1996 alone. The government has confronted the demands for better conditions with armed operations in several prisons, resulting in 27 more prisoner deaths in the last five years. The security forces’ use of excessive force during these operations is well-documented by human rights groups, but the responsible parties have not been charged with their crimes.
The declared rationale behind the government’s decision to replace the ward-based prison system with F-type cells was to end the collective ward life of leftist political organizations, which had reportedly become uncontrollable. F-type prisons, modeled after the US prison system, have little or no shared social space, and would likely dissolve the social networks that political prisoners in Turkey have traditionally relied upon to make prison life bearable. Human rights groups, left-wing parties, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the Union of Turkish Bars (TBB) and the Association of Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) have spoken strongly against the harsh design of F-type prisons. A joint report of the TTB, TBB and TMMOB concluded that F-type prisons are geared to break prisoners psychologically through isolation. Political prisoners themselves warned of increased prison guard brutality in isolated cells without witnesses. The hunger strike began to protest the government’s decision to build the new jails anyway, on the pretext of implementing the prison “reform” that all observers agree is urgently needed in Turkey.
The hunger strikers, all members or supporters of radical left organizations, demanded either abolition of F-type prisons or their redesign under the supervision of TTB, TBB and TMMOB. They called for prosecution of perpetrators of previous prison massacres and medical care for ailing prisoners who had survived previous armed operations and death fasts. After a month, the hunger strike became a death fast. On the strike’s fifty-fifth day, the Ministry of Justice finally announced postponement of the F-type transfer pending an agreement with the strikers, but would not sign a document mandating the professional organizations’ approval of redesigned prisons. Based on their previous experiences, the prisoners did not trust the Ministry without a written agreement. Refusing to negotiate further, the government launched Operation Return to Life few days later. The Minister of Interior Affairs admitted that the operation had been planned a year in advance, and right after the operation, hundreds of prisoners—including several conducting death fasts—were transferred to completed F-type prisons. Lawyers who visited F-type prisons in Sincan and Edirne recently said that death-fasting inmates had been left to die in their cells, some exposed to torture. Prison heating systems did not work, they said, reporting meetings with shivering prisoners wearing sheets. They estimated the operation’s real death toll at well over 40.
Democratic Transition in Danger
Operation Return to Life occurs in the context of increased hopes for a democratic transition in Turkey. The conflict and tension in the Kurdish region has decreased considerably, after captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan ordered the organization to withdraw its armed forces outside Turkish borders, and convinced the PKK to change its strategy to legal, political struggle. Ocalan’s death sentence, currently under review at the European Court of Human Rights, is unlikely to be carried out. In 1999, the EU officially approved Turkey’s candidacy for membership, a piece of news enthusiastically received in Turkey.
In October 2000, the EU publicized its requirements from Turkey to start the official membership process. In response, Turkey was supposed to prepare its own national program taking the EU demands into account. Although the requirements of EU membership were well-known from the beginning, and despite the popularity of EU membership as an idea, the mere discussion of concrete steps to fulfill the requirements shifted powerful sectors of the state from a cooperative position to a defensive, paranoid and isolationist position. Among the requirements deemed objectionable are: abrogation of the military’s supervisory role over the political system, native-language media and education for all Turkish citizens, including Kurds, and the commencement of constructive negotiations with Greece and Cyprus over those countries’ long-standing disputes with Turkey.
The military, and the ultra-nationalist party MHP in the coalition government, decry the EU requirements as an attack on Turkish national unity and even an alliance with the PKK. Most of the other major political parties and the Turkish media express similar views, though less intensely. Previously allied sectors of the state have come into open conflict. For the first time in history, the military and the National Intelligence Agency publicly disagreed — over the use of the Kurdish language in the media. But since the mainstream political parties lack the political will for an open confrontation with the military and ultra-right, and since superficial changes in Turkey’s political system will not be enough to qualify Turkey for EU membership, the EU negotiations are at a standstill.
Several other recent events point to hardline resistance to democratization. In November 2000, several thousand police held illegal demonstrations to protest the killings of two officers and to demand that the government include officers convicted of applying torture in the amnesty bill that came into effect this week, releasing 20,000 non-striking prisoners. Businessmen called upon the military to intervene in Turkey’s “sudden” economic crisis. Shortly thereafter, the government signed an additional agreement with the IMF, bringing all key economic policies in line with the neoliberal demands. Turkish troops have once again crossed the Iraqi border to pursue PKK forces that have been observing a unilateral ceasefire for over a year. Operation Return to Life was not confined to prisons; hundreds of civilians demonstrating against the prison invasions were detained daily, and harassment of human rights organizations and legal socialist parties increased.
For decades, two founding principles have shaped the Turkish state’s imagination of itself, and penetrated large sectors of Turkish society to varying degrees. On the one hand, Turkey regards itself as part of the “civilized” Western world, and Westernization is an everlasting “ego-ideal.” On the other hand, Turkey feels surrounded by external enemies and filled with internal enemies who aim to destabilize the country. The concrete demands of EU membership make it seem impossible to reconcile the “ego-ideal” and the nationalist defense mechanism. Turkey will either redefine its ego-ideal and become a democratic country—in or out of the EU—or reinforce its paranoid defense, producing more violence and instability. Operation Return to Life is alarming evidence of the strength of the paranoid position.