Fast and Furious

Turkish academics on hunger strike seek justice for victims of government purges

Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca’s hunger strike has become a rallying point for those who oppose President Erdogan, whose policies have drawn international scrutiny since the attempted military coup of July 2016. altan gocher / nurphoto / getty images
01 July, 2018

On 1 December 2017, the day Nuriye Gulmen was released from prison, she filmed a video from her bed. Amid pillows nearly swallowing her emaciated frame, she thanked her supporters for rallying against her incarceration. Gulmen, a 35-year-old academic, had been on hunger strike for nine months, and had lost half of her body weight.

Gulmen was one of around 100,000 public-sector workers—including 5,000 academics—whom the Turkish government had dismissed from their jobs after a military coup was attempted in July 2016. Many of the purged individuals had called for an end to state violence in Turkey’s Kurdish province. Others were critics of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, and some were followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric whom the government blames for orchestrating the attempted coup.

In November 2016, Gulmen began staging daily demonstrations in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, along with two other academics. When these failed to bring about change, Gulmen and one of the other academics, Semih Ozakca, began a hunger strike. Subsisting on water, sugar and salt solutions, they vowed to fast until they got their jobs back. Gulmen and Ozakca ended their hunger strike earlier this year, though they have not been reinstated, and continue to speak against government excesses. The two have become powerful figures of the resistance against Erdogan, who has been ruling the country with an iron fist since the attempted coup. Late last month, Erdogan was re-elected for another five-year term in a snap election. This time around, after a controversial referendum was conducted last year, Turkey’s constitution has been revised to funnel power away from parliament and towards the president.

I spoke with Gulmen in February 2017, at a deserted café in Ankara, near the human-rights monument in front of which she protested daily. “When you get dismissed, you feel some kind of burning fire in yourself. I mean, how can they do this to my friends and me? To thousands of people?” she said. “This has nothing to do with if people are either guilty or not—you cannot be dismissed through a process like this.”

In 2012, Gulmen began working as a research assistant in the department of comparative literature at Osmangazi University. On 30 September 2016, the day after a state of emergency was declared, she was one of thousands purged for allegedly having ties with FETÖ/PDY, a group associated with Fethullah Gulen.

After a few months of demonstrations, Gulmen and Ozakca began to amass supporters. The two were taken into custody about thirty times during their seven months of protests. Their sympathisers were often detained and abused by police as well.

In March 2017, Gulmen and Ozakca began their hunger strike—a move they were already planning when I spoke with Gulmen in Ankara. “We will start a hunger strike soon, so I don’t know how long they can ignore us,” she said. She did not want to use more standard methods of resistance, such as giving lessons to students in public spaces, or filing lawsuits through labour unions. “We know we must take into consideration the price to pay in order to earn your rights,” she said.

On 22 May, the seventy-fifth day of the hunger strike, the academics were arrested. Both were transferred to a prison hospital in late July—against their will—due to their deteriorating condition. Ozakca told me he was afraid of being force-fed, and so refused medical treatment.

At Gulmen and Ozakca’s first hearing, in September, they were not allowed to testify, and their main lawyers could not attend due to detention warrants issued against them. Just before the academics’ second trial, in October, fourteen of their lawyers got arrested for alleged ties with terrorists. They remain in prison to this day. By this time, Gulmen and Ozakca were being charged with being members of the DHKP-C—a banned leftist organisation that has carried out violent attacks. (In 2012, Gulmen had spent three months in prison after being accused of having ties with the group; she was acquitted due to lack of evidence.)

Gulmen remained in a prison hospital, which she considered “torture.” Officials did not allow her to attend her trials, citing her poor health and security issues. In an act of resistance, she refused to testify through video conferencing.

In January 2017, responding to pressure from the international community, the government established an ad hoc commission to review dismissals issued under the state of emergency. According to Human Rights Watch, 108,000 people had applied to the commission by mid April, but decisions have since been issued in just 12,000 cases—in which the commission has overturned only 310 dismissals. Gulmen and Ozakca also appealed before the commission, but were denied reinstatement.

In October, Ozakca was released on probation and put under house arrest, then acquitted of belonging to the DHKP-C. I spoke with him in late November, about a month after he had been released on probation. He sat in his living room next to his wife, Esra, who was also on hunger strike. His eyes were sunken, and he spoke slowly. “I differentiate between law and justice,” he said. “There is no law in our country, but I believe in justice.”

Though Ozakca was acquitted, Gulmen was convicted of being a member of the DHKP-C, and sentenced to over six years in prison. She was released pending an appeal.

Gulmen’s trial, according to Ozakca, had been plagued with irregularities. Evidence that she was plotting to build a homemade bomb appeared late in the trial process, and secret witnesses were called in to testify against her. “I believe that the judge can’t give an independent decision,” Ozakca said. “They are taking orders.”

Duygu Demirel, a lawyer defending the academics, told me about the ad hoc commission. It “was established, but it’s not independent—yet it is the only mechanism people have of getting due process,” she said. The commission is made up of seven members, of whom the government directly appoints five. The remaining two are appointed by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which is itself directly appointed by the government. International human-rights watchdogs have raised concerns about the commission’s impartiality.

This January, after they had fasted for nearly a year, Gulmen and Ozakca announced the end of the hunger strike. Both in poor health, they no longer come out to demonstrations, although their supporters still do. The human-rights monument is now fenced to keep protesters away, and a mobile police station is perpetually parked nearby.

“They called us terrorists,” Gulmen said. “They can do anything to us based on these accusations—so this is the exact reason why we should resist. I think the legal process to get my job back can be as easy as the process that got me dismissed.”