Turkey police crack down
By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
October 31, 2012
ISTANBUL, (CNN)— About 200 Kurdish
demonstrators marched up a narrow Istanbul street
behind a large banner that said "political prisoners
are our pride, we will not stay silent over the
deaths in prison."
The group's organizers were expecting trouble. They
were marching on Tuesday without a government
Barely 200 yards up the road, the crowd encountered
a squad of armored Turkish riot police and a big
police vehicle blocking the road.
Without any verbal warning, the vehicle lurched
forward and unleashed its water cannon on the crowd.
The demonstrators huddled behind their banner for a
moment, until riot police unleashed a volley of tear
gas canisters into the crowd.
As stinging, acrid smoke engulfed the neighborhood,
the middle-aged Kurdish demonstrators quickly gave
way to masked youths hurling stones and fireworks at
Tuesday marked the second time in two days Turkish
riot police used force against unsanctioned
gatherings of political groups challenging the
On Monday, security forces in Ankara used pepper
spray and water cannons to disperse secularist
groups trying to hold a rally celebrating the
anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish
republic. Participants gathered in defiance of a
The next day, Turkey's chief prosecutor announced he
was launching an investigation into the secularist
The crackdown during Republic Day in Ankara
highlighted how powerless Turkey's once dominant
secular establishment has become. It has also led to
accusations by long-time supporters in Turkish
newspapers that Turkey's Islamist-rooted prime
minister is adopting the same authoritarian tactics
of the secularist ancient regime.
Tuesday's Kurdish clashes reflect a different power
struggle. The riots in Istanbul and other Turkish
cities mark yet another day in a bloody 30-year
cycle of violence between the Turkish state and the
Kurds. It is Turkey's oldest and deadliest ethnic
conflict, one that has claimed more than 30,000
The conflict developed a disturbing new dynamic in
recent weeks as a mass hunger strike has spread
through the Turkish penal system. According to the
Turkish government statistics, at least 680 Kurdish
prisoners are now starving themselves, some for
nearly 50 days.
"They want two things," said Gulcin Isbert, a member
of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is
Turkey's largest and best-organized Kurdish
nationalist party. "The right to education and
defense in court in their native language, and for
the leader of the Kurds,www.ekurd.net
Abdullah Ocalan, to have
health, security and freedom."
For decades, the Kurdish language was banned in
Turkey despite the fact the Kurds make up the
country's largest ethnic minority. Those
restrictions have been relaxed over the past decade
by the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, which introduced a state Kurdish-language
But Kurdish partisans want to expand those
The demand for the release of Ocalan is much more
problematic. He is the founder of the Kurdistan
Workers Party, or PKK, a group that Turkey, the U.S.
and the European Union label as a 'terrorist
Though Ocalan has spent more than a decade
imprisoned on a Turkish island in the Marmara Sea,
the guerilla war he began against the Turkish state
continues to be fought.
Last month, the nonprofit conflict mediation
organization International Crisis Group published a
report arguing Turkey's PKK conflict had reached its
deadliest levels in some 13 years, with more than
700 people killed during a 14 month period.
Last weekend, Turkey's semiofficial Anatolian Agency
reported a police officer was killed in an apparent
rebel attack in southeastern Turkey, the main battle
ground in the conflict.
The ICG report also cited Turkish Ministry of
Justice statistics indicating Kurds have been
targets of a massive wave of detentions, with more
than 7,000 prisoners accused of PKK links thrown
behind bars over the past several years.
The parents of some of those prisoners were in a
tent in a park in Istanbul's Okmeydani neighborhood
Tuesday morning, staging a sit-in to support their
children on hunger strike. Women in Kurdish
head-scarves sat on carpets, some of them decorated
with traditional facial tattoos, swaying and singing
folks songs in Kurdish.
"Of course we are worried," said Feride Akdogan,
whose 26-year old daughter Sehnaz had been on hunger
strike for the past 15 days.
Asked whether it was worth losing her daughter to
improve prison conditions for PKK-leader Ocalan,
Akdogan said simply "thousands of our people have
thrown themselves on the fire for our leader."
Ebu Bekir Polat and his wife, Behiye, were
participating in the sit-in for their daughter Ciyan.
She was arrested two and a half years ago at the age
of 18, Polat said, and accused of membership in a
terrorist organization, though she had yet to be
convicted in court.
"No one has the right to make our kids rot in jail
like this for two and a half years," Polat said.
He insisted the hunger strikers were staging their
potentially lethal protest in the interest of peace.
"These kids have given their bodies to the fire of
hunger ... not just for the Kurdish people, but for
the future of Turkey. So that this war can end, so
that neither soldiers, police or guerillas in the
mountains die," Polat added.
Last week, Turkey's Justice Minister made a
televised appeal to prisoners to stop their hunger
"Reform and change, work on expanding freedoms is
ongoing," Sadullah Ergin said during a visit to a
prison in Ankara. "For your bodies, for your health,
for the family members who love you ... stop this
But on Tuesday, riot police in Istanbul had little
sympathy for relatives of the prisoners.
As squads of riot police and armored cars chased
stone-throwing Kurds through the streets of
Okmeydani, a police vehicle rounded a corner and
started firing its water cannon at the tent where at
least 20 mostly middle aged Kurdish women sat on
A lawyer for the Kurds rushed forward, arguing that
the sit-in by the Kurdish mothers was peaceful and
had nothing to do with the nearby street clashes.
"They are throwing Molotov cocktails at us," a
police commander answered. "They can have 15 minutes
to leave the area."
But less than five minutes later, armored police
officers began ripping down the tent. Another
officer popped open a tear gas canister and tossed
it into the tent, at the feet of the increasingly
panicked women inside.
As women stumbled to their feet half-blind trying to
escape, a Kurdish man kicked the canister out of the
tent. A police officer in a suit and gas mask then
picked it up and threw it back into the tent.
"Get the mothers! Get the mothers out of there!"
yelled a silver-haired Kurdish man named Ali Riza
Bilgili, as he struggled to help a woman out of the
A half dozen police officers in helmets and gas
masks then worked together to rip down one of the
metal ribs holding up the tent.
"Enough!" another Kurdish man screamed. "What has
this woman done wrong? You're only doing this
because I don't have a gun."
Moments later, the police withdrew. Reinforcements
were arriving in the neighborhood. But the protests
were also growing. A kilometer away, young Kurdish
men momentarily blocked a major commercial
road...intimidating drivers by laying rocks on the
Turkey's Kurdish conflict is still very far from
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