ISTANBUL - Nearly 1,000 people were forced out of their jobs Friday in Turkey, joining more than 150,000 people who have been fired as part of an ongoing government crackdown following a failed coup last year. The opposition is increasingly rallying around two purged educators who have been on a hunger strike for more than five months.
"Semih, Nuriye, we are with you," protesters chanted earlier this month in the heart of Istanbul. It was the latest show of support for Professor Nuriye Gulmen and schoolteacher Semih Ozakca, two protesters who are in their fifth month of a hunger strike over the firing of educators during the government crackdown.
The Istanbul protest did not last long. Dozens of heavily armed riot police and plainclothes police officers began making arrests. With the condition of the two hunger strikers deteriorating, the crackdown on their supporters is intensifying.
The interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, has ruled out concessions.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but we are not sending our children to schools to be educated as terrorists. We can't surrender our children to the hands of the terrorists for their education."
Gulmen and Ozakca were fired for alleged ties to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for masterminding the coup attempt. Like many people fired since the start of the crackdown, Gulmen and Ozakca say they are staunchly secular and oppose Gulen. Gulen denies the government's accusation against him.
Gulmen and Ozakca, however, are critical of the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With their hunger strike becoming an increasing focal point of opposition to the crackdown, the two were jailed on terrorism charges.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar says the crackdown on Gulmen and Ozakca and their supporters is driven by panic.
"It's done out of irrationality and fear. They don't realize by doing so, they are making these two unlucky fellows heroes," Aktar said. "If they happen to die, which I really hope not, things will get worse. People will take up this issue more strongly. Others may follow suit. Other hunger strikers may follow suit, and it may become something uncontrollable."
Protests in support of Gulmen and Ozakca continue. Their names can be seen in graffiti on walls and pavement in towns and cities across Turkey. Despite the risks, demonstrators remain defiant.
"I am extremely worried, I am so worried, even I am losing weight because I don't enjoy existing while this is happening," one woman said. "We will definitely find a way of continuing to exist. Not just exist, but to resist and get a strong win in the end. What we are fighting for is justice, human rights. It's a good cause."
Tensions are further fueled by reports that authorities are planning to force feed Gulmen and Ozakca.