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Trial of two Turkish teachers on hunger strike starts amid protests and tear gas

President Erdogan's government has accused Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca of links to terrorist groups. The teachers were too weak to enter court, and part of their legal team was arrested two days before their hearing.

Watch video 02:47

Trial begins in Turkey of two teachers fired in purge

The trial of two Turkish teachers who have been on a hunger strike while in prison over the past six months got off to a violent start on Thursday as police used tear gas, riot shields and batons to try and control the swarms individuals who descended on the Ankara courthouse to protest the legal proceedings.

Literature professor Nuriye Gulmen and elementary school teacher Semih Ozakca were not present on the trial's opening day. The two have been on a hunger strike since March to protest their January dismissal from their jobs. Medics have described the educators' condition as life-threatening. Court authorities said the teachers' absence was due to "health and security" concerns. 

Read more: Educators on hunger strike in Turkey: A 'fight for our livelihood'

The two were arrested in May 2017, and their legal team said that the duo was arrested because of fears that their strike would spark broader demonstrations against the government.

The government has accused the teachers of having links to the militant Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. If convicted, the pair could face up to 20 years in jail.

The two educators' dismissal was part of a purge by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016. Over 140,000 civil servants, teachers, lawyers and other public sector employees have been dismissed or suspended in the crackdown. 

Read more: In Turkey, hope for 'justice is fading away just like my muscles'

Türkei Hungerstreik Nuriye Gülmen & Semih Özakca, Archivbild (picture-alliance/AFP/A. Altan)

Nuriye Gulmen (L) and Semih Ozakca (R) have been on a hunger strike since March 9. Above, the pair shortly before their arrest in May 2017.

Arrests in the legal team

Gulmen and Ozakca's legal defense team from the People's Law Bureau (HHB) was also absent on Thursday. At least 15 lawyers from the team had been detained on alleged terror-related charges on Tuesday.

However, dozens of lawyers tried to make their way into the courthouse to contribute to the absent defendants' defense. The courtroom was so full that many were forced to remain outside.

Opposition lawmakers from the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, as well as civil protesters, were among those outside of the courthouse who made statements defending the teachers and attacking the Erdogan government. 

Read more: Turkey's 'March for Justice': opposition calls for unity, reform

 "We will destroy this oppressive regime. Without democracy and freedom, nothing will be possible in this country," CHP parliamentarian Mahmut Tanal said.

"The first obstacle before a fair trial was the detention of their [Gulmen and Ozakca's] lawyers, which also served as a veiled intimidation attempt at the judges trying them. Now they are not brought to court, in an open breach of their right to defend," said Baris Yarkada, also of the CHP.

Turkish police arrested at least 20 protesters, dragging some alone the ground, and used batons, tear gas, and riot shields to attempt to control the crowd. AFP reported that many protesters shouted, "Nuriye and Semih are not alone."

Turkisjh police carry off a man protesting in front of the courthouse where Nuriye Gulmen & Semih Ozakca's trail kicked off (Reuters/U. Bektas)

Turkish police carry off a protester outside of the courthouse where Gulmen and Ozakca's trail kicked off

The trial will continue on September 28. 

Protesting the purge with a hunger strike

Since March, Gulmen and Ozakca have eschewed all food, surviving on liquids and supplements alone. The educators began their hunger strike in order to draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been purged by Erdogan over the past year.

Erdogan accuses many of the purged individuals of having collaborated with Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric that the Turkish government alleges masterminded the failed July coup. However, human rights groups say that Erdogan is taking advantage of the coup in order to imprison and silence political opposition.

 

Listen to audio 06:13

Inside Europe: Two Turks on hunger strike to save their jobs

 cmb/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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