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'Justice is fading away like my muscles'

Aslı Işık
June 29, 2017

As for thousands in Turkey, a government decree ended Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca's careers. In protest, the pair started a hunger strike 113 days ago - they have languished in prison since their arrests on day 75.

Türkei Hungerstreik - Nuriye Gülmen & Semih Özakca
Image: DW/H. Köylü

Comparative literature professor Nuriye Gulmen and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca fell victim to massive purges that have seen tens of thousands of academics, politicians, military officers, civil servants, journalistsand other government critics lose their jobs or land in prison

For the past 113 days, Gulmen, 32, and Ozakca, 28,  have protested being removed from their schools by engaging in a hunger strike. The attention they garnered landed them in jail on day number 75.

Behind bars for the past 38 days, Benan Koyuncu, a doctor from the Ankara Chamber of Medicine, has been unable to visit the pair after the Ministry of Justice denied her application to treat them on the grounds that "prisons have medical facilities." Koyuncu criticized the decision, saying that laws provide patients the right to choose their own doctors.

Turkey puts alleged coup plotters on trial

Suffering through hunger strike

Koyuncu, who had been monitoring Gulmen and Ozakca's health before their imprisonment, said when she last saw them on day 70 of the hunger strike Gulmen was suffering from sore muscle and an upper respiratory tract infection.

Koyuncu said it is impossible to assess their medical state right now without a physical examination as "each person has a different reaction time to a hunger strike."

Over the past year, thousands of people accused of having ties to the Fethullah Gulen movement have either been suspended from their work or lost their jobs with legislative decrees under the state of emergency rules declared a shortly after the July 2016 coup attempt. Turkey blamed US-based cleric Gulen for the attempted coup.

Prison visits

Ozakca's wife, Esra, visited her husband twice in the past 38 days and said he looked like he was managing to survive in prison. Asked why they refused to be treated by the prison doctors, she said her husband and Gulmen did not trust the facility's medical staff.

Türkei - Esra Özakca - Protest
Esra Ozakca has lost 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) in her hunger strike supporting her husbandImage: Imago/ZUMA Press/A. Gocher

"When a group of doctors visited the pair for the first time, they told them that they would intervene in the hunger strike when they went unconscious," she said. "That ruined the doctor-patient relationship."

Esra Ozakca, who is on the 37th day of her own hunger strike to support her husband, added that prison staff would not allow visits from the doctors who monitored Gulmen and Ozakca during the first 70 days of the hunger strike.

Protests in Turkey - Read more: Turkish 'walk for justice' continues despite Erdogan threat

'Justice is fading'

Hakan Canduran, the president of the Ankara Bar Association, recently visited Gulmen. He said he thinks the duo were arrested so they would not die during the hunger strike, which, he said, would create an uproar outside the prison.  The two have survived on a liquid diet of lemon and salt water and sugar solutions.

"Gulmen can only sit still with neck protector. She is unable to move her arms and cannot hold a pen," said Canduran, who visited the prison with four other bar association presidents.

Canduran said Gulmen told him, "I see justice is fading just like my muscles."

Türkei - Demonstration für die Hungerstreik von Nuriye Gülmen und Semih Özakca
People have taken to the streets calling for the pair's release and reinstatement at workImage: DW/A. Isik

The pair requested their relatives bring them books. Gulmen requested a copy of a children's book by Pam Munoz Ryan called The Dreamer. Ozakca asked for two books: a political history book by Yalcin Kucuk on the Turkish intellectuals since the late Ottoman era and a history book on trade unions and public employees in Turkey. Ozakca intended to study these books and build his defense arguments for the upcoming trial on September 14.

Canduran also addressed calls to end the hunger strikes.

"There is no negotiation, no mediation here," he said. "The government will have to reverse its decision and the 'state of emergency commission' will return these two educators to their jobs. This is the only way for societal reconciliation."