ISTANBUL — Kurdish inmates in dozens of Turkish prisons are conducting a hunger strike to pressure the government to grant greater Kurdish rights and better conditions for a jailed militant leader. With concerns growing about the condition of the hunger-strikers, efforts are intensifying to resolve the protest.
For nearly 60 days, about 700 imprisoned Kurdish activists have been drinking water with sugar, salt and vitamins, but no solid food.
They are demanding the right to use the Kurdish language in court cases and in school. They are also demanding free access to lawyers for the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.
Turkey's medical association is expressing concern about the condition of some of the hunger-strikers and warns fatalities are possible.
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party parliamentary deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu says resolution of the protest could be near.
"Everything is now hinging around the talks between the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) leaders, the minister of justice, and the president," said Kurkcu. "I think there is going to be a final decision by the government, and I am optimistic."
Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc announced the government is prepared to meet one of the strikers' demands.
He says the prime minister has agreed people should be able to defend themselves in court in the language in which they can best express themselves. He said the justice minister is drafting a bill to send to parliament to become law.
The announcement came as a surprise to much of the Turkish media. For weeks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the protest, claiming the hunger strikers were all in good health and saying he would not be blackmailed. But pressure has been building on the government.
Protests across the country are on the rise amid media reports about the deteriorating health of the hunger-strikers. Some demonstrations have ended in violence.
Pro-Kurdish deputy Kurkcu, who met with some of the prisoners, warns no one should doubt their commitment.
"They are absolutely determined because these people have met with every severe condition of being and have been subject to heavy torture, and have been spending at least 14 years in prison," said Kurkcu. "I met one person who was 32 years in prison. So these people are very serious when they speak about matters relating with life and death."
The prospect of prisoners dying is expected to lead to increasing international pressure, in particular from the European Union, which Turkey is hoping to join.
On Saturday, Erdogan strongly attacked the protest and sent a veiled threat to the imprisoned PKK leader that the majority of Turkey wants a restoration of the death penalty. Ocalan was sentenced to death, but it was commuted to a life sentence after the abolition of capital punishment in 2004.
Political columnist Cengiz Aktar of Today’s Zaman newspaper warns the country is at a critical point.
"The minister of justice is really trying to do his best, but the prime minister is systematically adding oil to the fire and this (is) very dangerous," said Aktar. "And I hope it will not get there, but the ingredients of a civil war is slowly piling up."
Tensions are already high with a marked upsurge in fighting this year between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels. Observers warn tensions will rise further if fasting prisoners start to die. Turkey has a history of such fatal protests. Activists say more than 100 prisoners associated with hunger strikes against prison conditions have died in the past two decades.