Turkey and the Kurds
Hunger and thirst
A hunger strike causes new tension between Turkey and its Kurds
What happens if they start dying? The question weighs ever more heavily as hundreds of Kurds in prisons across Turkey continue the hunger strike they launched on September 12th. Human-rights activists are saying that many have reached “a critical threshold.”
The hunger strikers, surviving on sugar water and vitamins, vow to keep up their fast until the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party meets their demands for greater linguistic rights and better prison conditions for the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has responded with threats to reintroduce capital punishment, to which Mr Ocalan was sentenced after his capture in 1999 (and which AK abolished when it took office in 2002, in line with European Union demands.)
Mr Erdogan has ridiculed the strikers, growling “let them continue” at a recent AK meeting. When five MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said they would join in, a breezy prime minister noted “some of them are in serious need of dieting.” Yet the government has conceded one demand with a new bill to allow Kurds to use their mother tongue in court. The EU’s ambassador in Ankara, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said this could “create the space for political dialogue.”
The Kurds are unlikely to stop their hunger strike until Mr Ocalan is granted access to his lawyers as they demand. Mr Ocalan’s status is shrouded in mystery. He has not met the lawyers for 15 months. The government claims this is because the ferry that carries them to his island prison south of Istanbul has broken down. Nobody believes this, not least because Mr Ocalan’s younger brother visited him in September. He returned saying the PKK leader was unkempt and was upset by the escalation in PKK violence that prompted Mr Erdogan to scupper secret peace talks.
Yet the younger Mr Ocalan shed no light on whether it was his brother who is shunning the lawyers or the government that is blocking their visits. Proponents of the first theory speculate that Mr Ocalan will not see the lawyers (or ask the PKK to end its violence) unless the government moves him from solitary confinement to house arrest. Backers of the second idea think the government wanted to break the links between Mr Ocalan and his fighters (the lawyers carried messages) in hopes of triggering a leadership struggle that would fracture the PKK.
If so, the strategy has failed. Mr Ocalan’s grip may be weaker but he continues to be revered by millions of Kurds. Giant images of the mustachioed PKK leader can be seen throughout Kurdish towns in neighbouring Syria, where an affiliate called the PYD seized control after the withdrawal of President Bashar Assad’s troops. Turkey has been lobbying America for a no-fly zone over northern Syria in hopes of squashing the PKK’s expanding influence. Wary of wading into further Middle Eastern misadventures the Americans have said no. But in a show of support NATO is expected, at Turkey’s request, to deploy Patriot missiles in the province of Kilis, which borders Syria.
The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, says the missiles would defend Turkey against a possible chemical-weapon attack. Western diplomats suggest that, contrary to reports in the Turkish press, the Patriots could not create a no-fly zone for Syrian rebels and refugees, but are “mostly about making the Turks feel loved.” Turkish tanks remain on hills facing a PYD-held town this week after PKK sympathisers fired shots into the air during a funeral last month. If the stand-off with hunger strikers persists, more funerals will follow.