Hunger strikes have become one of the prominent actions of opponents of the regime in Turkey, along with other resistance actions that have been carried out in the prisons of Diyarbakır (Amed) and elsewhere, following the 1980 military coup.
Kemal Pir, Hayri Durmuş, Akif Yılmaz and Ali Çiçek lost their lives in the “great hunger strike” of 1982, triggering great resistance in the prisons. The ‘Diyarbakır Dungeons Resistance’ is accepted as one of the turning points in the struggle of the Kurdish people for their rights in Turkey.
Six prisoners lost their lives as a result of hunger strike actions in Diyarbakır and Sağmalcılar Prisons in 1984, demanding the abolition of the prison uniform, an end to torture, the provision of humane and social living conditions and the recognition of rights for political prisoners.
There were mass hunger strikes in many prisons in 1995 and 1996, and 14 prisoners lost their lives, two in 1995 and 12 in 1996. Hundreds of prisoners joined the hunger strike and ‘to-the-death’ strike actions in 2000-2007, protesting against the F-type prisons. A total of 69 people lost their lives, 48 prisoners in the prisons, 13 prisoners after release, and seven on the outside who were supporters of the prisoners.
In the last 10 years, prison hunger strikes have re-emerged through a series of actions led by Kurdish political prisoners. The main demand that has featured in all the mass hunger strikes in Turkey’s prisons in this period has been the release of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan from solitary confinement, and the securing of his physical freedom.
In 2012, hunger strikes in the prisons demanding Abdullah Öcalan’s release from solitary confinement continued for 68 days. As a result of tens of thousands of prisoners joining the hunger strike action, the gates of İmralı prison were opened and Öcalan met with a peace delegation.
In 2016, as Öcalan was again being prevented from seeing his lawyer and his solitary confinement conditions were gradually worsening, Kurdish politicians and liberals started a hunger strike in Diyarbakır. This action ended after Abdullah Öcalan was allowed to meet with his brother Mehmet Öcalan.
In 2017, Kemal Gün began a hunger strike in Tunceli (Dersim), demanding that the state hand over his son’s bones to him. He ended the hunger strike on the 90th day when he was promised that his son’s bones would be given to him. Also that same year, educationalists Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça began a long hunger strike in Ankara demanding to be reinstated after they were dismissed by statutory decree.
In 2018, the frequent hunger strikes over previous years relating to serious human rights violations once again became a major agenda item under the leadership of Kurdish political prisoners demanding freedom for Abdullah Öcalan. In November that year, Leyla Güven, co-chair of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) led the greatest mass hunger strike in the history of Turkey and Kurdistan. The hunger strike spread quickly through many prisons across Turkey and the demands of the Kurdish prısoners were the same: end Abdullah Öcalan’s prison isolation conditions.
Tens of thousands of people joined the hunger strike action of 2018 both inside and outside the prisons. And during the last months of the strike, dozens of prisoners changed it to a ‘to-the-death’ strike. This action continued for 200 days, and while the Peace Mothers ran resistance actions outside the prisons in the streets, significant resistance actions continued inside the prisons.
Zülküf Gezen, Ayten Beçet, Zehra Sağlam, Medya Çınar, Yonca Akıcı, Siraç Yüksek, Mahsum Pamay, Ümit Acar and Uğur Şakar sacrificed themselves and lost their lives in their protests against Abdullah Öcalan’s solitary confinement.
On 26 May 2019, lawyers from Asrın Law Office announced that they had had a meeting with Öcalan. With the breaking of his solitary confinement in this way, the mass hunger strike came to an end.
On 27 November 2020, with the renewed and ever increasing severity of Öcalan’s solitary confinement, political prisoners once again began a hunger strike action (which also included, among its demands, that rights abuses of prisoners should end). There are also ongoing hunger strike actions in support of Turkey’s prisoners in Maxmur Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan and Lavrio Refugee Camp in Greece, where there are Kurds residing.
As of 15 June, the indefinite, alternating hunger strike action with the demand “Release Abdullah Öcalan from solitary confinement” reaches its 201st day. The prisoners are also demanding an end to violations of rights in the prisons in Turkey in general.