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'Martyrs' on Behalf of Inmates

Turkish hunger strikers seek improved conditions for prisoners. At least 19 protesters have perished.


ISTANBUL, Turkey — Fatma Sener has everything to live for. She is smart, attractive, good at sports and has an outgoing personality. But doctors say the 22-year-old will almost certainly die if she sticks to her current diet.

Sener has been surviving on sugar, salt and water for 164 days. The philosophy student is among 800 leftist Turkish inmates, relatives and sympathizers who have been on a prolonged hunger strike to put pressure on the government to improve conditions in the country's notoriously brutal prisons.

At least 19 of the protesters have died since March 21. Yet there is little public sympathy for the strikers as the nation grapples with the effects of a financial crisis that is being called the worst in modern Turkish history.

Sener is undeterred.

"I will not give up until we achieve victory," the young woman said, her eyes blazing with defiance for just the briefest of moments before she lapsed back into listlessness. Sener, who has lost 25 pounds and says her muscles "are melting away," has shared a concrete shack with fellow hunger strikers for the last three months.

On Sunday, Senay Hanoglu, a 30-year-old mother of two, became the third person to die in the house. On a small table shrouded in crimson, her neatly folded cotton pajamas are displayed along with assorted memorabilia and photographs of the other "martyrs."

"I really miss her," Sener said. "But I know her death will make a difference."

The hunger strikers have vowed to keep up their "death fast" until Turkey's leftist coalition government, led by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, meets their demands.

Foremost among them are that inmates being held in solitary confinement in new maximum-security "F type" prisons be allowed to spend time with fellow prisoners at least once a day and that the government appoint mediators to negotiate with striking prisoners. The striking inmates, many of them members of armed extremist factions, also complain that they have limited access to their lawyers and that relatives are frequently denied visitation rights.

Hopes of a breakthrough came Thursday, when a parliamentary committee approved a set of draft amendments to the country's draconian anti-terror laws.

Husnu Ondul, who as head of Turkey's Human Rights Assn. is seen as a likely mediator, described the proposed changes "as insufficient but a step in the right direction. Our immediate priority is to save lives, and I think with goodwill on both sides, we can."

But hunger strikers have rejected the amendments as an attempt by the government to lure them into giving up their fasts.

The hunger strikes began in October--initially to protest government plans to transfer prisoners from large wards in dormitory-type prisons to the "F type" penitentiaries, in which cells house no more than three inmates. Prisoners say they are vulnerable to abuse from wardens in the smaller, windowless cells.

In the old prisons, as many as 60 inmates were put in each ward. Many of the wards became indoctrination centers for the political groups--Marxists, Kurds, Islamists or nationalists--that controlled them.

In December, the government moved against the striking inmates, staging raids against 20 prisons. At least 30 prisoners and two security officials died in the operation, which the government called "Return to Life."

International rights groups have accused the government of using excessive force and torturing inmates during and after raids.

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