At least four Kurdish activists have died in prisons across Turkey since last week, in what lawyers and officials have called suicides over the poor prison conditions of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The series of alleged suicides by Kurdish prisoners started on March 17 when Kurdish officials confirmed that Zulkuf Gezen took his own life, followed by the deaths of Ayten Becet and Zehra Saglam by similar attempts last weekend. Officials of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) also confirmed on Monday the death of the fourth Kurdish activist, 24-year-old inmate Medya Cinar.
"Today, those who refused to listen to us caused the death of the fourth prisoner," HDP co-chair Sezai Temelli said during a public gathering Monday in Adana.
"For 139 days, we have been calling on the Ministry of Justice and the government to end this lawlessness," Temelli said to a crowd of supporters, referring to a widespread hunger strike campaign by Kurdish prisoners since November.
"We say that their demands must be fulfilled without deaths," he added.
The four deaths have prompted demonstrations from thousands of Kurds in Turkey, northern Syria and some parts of Europe.
The four activists had been in prison for years over alleged ties to PKK — a U.S., EU and Turkey-designated terrorist organization. Before ending their lives this month, they joined in the hunger strike that initially began in November 2018 to pressure Turkish authorities into giving more access to Ocalan.
The rebel leader has been imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea since 1999. He has been prevented from meeting with his lawyers since 2011, and has rarely been allowed to see his family.
The hunger strikes over his jail conditions were first initiated by HDP lawmaker Leyla Guven last November. Since then, an estimated 300 Kurdish lawmakers and activists across Turkey have joined.
Turkish officials have refused to yield to the strikers' requests, calling their activities an attempt by the HDP to stir up trouble in the country and spread pro-PKK propaganda.
"I do not call them deputies [representatives]. They are the PKK's deputies," Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said last week, referring to Kurdish HDP lawmakers in the Turkish parliament.
Speaking to a crowd of the ruling Justice and Development Party supporters in Nevsehir city, Soylu condemned HDP officials for attempting to organize a solidarity meeting at the burial site of Gezen.
"The other day, a terrorist died in prison. They wanted to meet and join the burial of the terrorist in Diyarbakir. I called the police chief and told him, 'Do not allow anyone to be near the airport. Do not allow anyone to be within one kilometer of the cemetery.' That is impossible for us to tolerate," Soylu told the crowd as reported by local Turkish media outlets.
The burial ceremony, which took place last Monday and was attended by dozens of people, ended in violent clashes when police fired a water cannon to disperse the supporters. According to pro-Kurdish ANF News, several HDP lawmakers were barred from entering Diyarbakir cemetery where Gezen was buried.
Government officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have repeatedly accused the HDP of being the political wing of the PKK.
The militant PKK group has been demanding Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1978.
Violent clashes between Turkey and the PKK have continued for more than 30 years in predominately Kurdish southeast, resulting in the deaths of nearly 40,000 people.