Fasting To Death

Basak Otlu never goes anywhere alone. She walks stiffly down the steeply sloping streets behind Istanbul's Taxim Square with her friend Mustafa, who has the same limping walk and the same haunted look in his eyes. Former political prisoners, they are on their way to a weekly appointment with Dr. Celal Calikusu, a psychiatrist who specializes in helping victims of police torture and imprisonment.

"We stick together because no one else understands what we have been through," says Basak, 27. Her nightmare began six years ago, in 1997, when she was arrested for participating in an illegal leftist demonstration for, ironically enough, prisoners' rights. At the police station she was strip-searched; her male friends were hung by their arms from the ceiling and beaten through the night. Mustafa, arrested at another demonstration, was beaten until he confessed to being a member of a similar group. After that, jail seemed a sanctuary of safety in numbers. Both Basak and Mustafa were assigned to standard dormitory-style cells containing as many as 60 other political prisoners, where warders rarely ventured.

Now Turkey is seeking to join the European Union and clean up its human-rights act--with police brutality, torture and prison conditions high on the list of reforms. For Basak and Mustafa, that meant a transfer two years ago to a more modern facility, closer to European standards. An improvement? Not as they saw it, for the new jail confined them in near-isolation, three people or fewer to a cell. That left them isolated and lonely, they say, and vulnerable to abuse from the warders. Basak likens it to being "buried alive."

This poses an ironic conundrum. On the one hand, people like Basak and Mustafa are victims of a culture of brutality, spawned by decades of political violence. On the other hand, though their ordeal began with political torture, Basak and Mustafa now limp their way through Istanbul because of physical damage they inflicted on themselves. It is the result of a protest against something that, to the outside world, represents a step forward. For their response to Turkey's decision to "Europeanize" its jails has been a hunger strike. Basak and Mustafa are two of approximately 230 leftist political prisoners who joined a notorious "death fast" that, since it began nearly a year ago, has claimed the lives of 47 people. (Another 36 have been killed during police raids, inside and outside jails, aimed at putting an end to the fasts.) And they have been terrible deaths, marked by dehydration, atrophication and the painful failure of internal organs, chiefly kidneys and livers. Sustained by a diet of sugar, vitamins and salt, their suffering lasts up to 300 days.

Needless to say, this doesn't exactly fit Europe's blueprint. Diplomats are flummoxed by the perversity of the situation. "As far as we can see, the new jails are more, not less humane," says one senior EU representative in Istanbul. Rather than demanding a return to their jails and prison lifestyle of the past, he suggests, the strikers ought to be protesting the torture and restrictions on such basic rights as free speech that put them there in the first place. Despite the international attention, this diplomat says, "the death fasts are a sideshow."

If so, what a needless tragedy it seems to be. To those involved, the fasts have become less a means to a goal than an end in themselves. Mustafa, for instance, can't even recall the full list of the political demands for which he nearly died, before being released last June. As for Basak, who fasted for 90 days before being force-fed by prison doctors and let go, she claims to have shown that "you can win a war against the state in the struggle for democratic rights." In fact, she has proved no such thing. There is no sign Turkey intends to bend an inch over the introduction of its new prisons, despite the mounting death toll. To the contrary, Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk said last month that the death-fast "problem" would be over in a year--because the protesters would all be dead.

Unlike 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in 1981 in a blaze of international publicity, the Turkish public scarcely seems aware of the protests. Media reports are rare, in part because laws forbid the "dissemination of terrorist propaganda"--code for anything smacking of political dissidence. The family of Lale Colak, a 26-year-old death-faster who died in January, showed NEWSWEEK the collected press clippings about her death--all two of them, both tiny.

In the end, it's up to the likes of Calikusu to make sense of this quixotic and deadly puzzle. A physician at Istanbul's Western-funded Human Rights Foundation, he has treated more than 500 prisoners, detainees and torture victims over the past year. Almost weirdly, most seem cheerful and outwardly well adjusted. The fasters' dedication to their cause, fruitless as it may ultimately be, seems itself to be the coping mechanism that allows them to survive. Calikusu has seen patients who've experienced everything from hangings to mock executions and genital beatings. After that, no form of protest seems too extreme to the victim--regardless of whether the perpetrators, or anyone else, pay attention.

Fortunately, there are some signs of change. Last month a group of high-school students who were arrested and beaten by police in 1999 for writing slogans on a wall won a suit they brought against the Turkish state in the European Court of Human Rights. They received $200,000 damages, and two of the police involved were fined $5. More than a hundred similar cases are pending, which could make police brutality simply too expensive for the government to ignore. Meanwhile, a partial reform of Turkey's more egregious anti-free-speech laws was approved by Parliament earlier this month, and authorities promise further measures, including harsher penalties for police officers who break the law--or their victims' bones. None of this will help Basak, Mustafa and the prisoners still on hunger strike, of course. But when it comes to human rights, it often takes two sides to come to one's senses.