Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Turkish prison protests took toll on health

CASUALTIES Prisoners who took part in massive hunger strikes said that they were fighting for more humane conditions; now they're struggling just to live normal lives

AFP , ANKARA

Former Turkish inmates Hasan Cepe, center, Esmehan Ekinci, back right, and Niyazi Kaya left, take a walk in an Anakra park with the help of their caregiver.

PHOTO: AP

Confined to a somber flat in a modest Ankara neighborhood, far-left militant Hasan Cepe is striving to remember what he has just read before turning the page. Next in his daily routine is a walking exercise.

"We struggled for our rights, now we struggle for our lives," slurs the 32-year-old, one of hundreds of former Turkish inmates who have been disabled for life in an unprecedented hunger strike against controversial jail reforms.

Released from prison on medical grounds, Cepe is left with an impaired short-term memory, muscle disorder and barely intelligible speech -- the result of 239 days of starvation.

He can now remember only part of his daily life and is unable to go out on his own as he does not know how to get back home. Hunger is something he no longer feels.

The so-called "death fast," which was launched in prisons across Turkey in October 2000 to protest the introduction of new high-security jails, claimed its 66th victim in March.

The protest once saw about 2,000 prisoners fast on a rotating basis, but with the government refusing to yield it now appears to be petering out with only about 20 inmates still fasting.

Survivors owe their lives to sugared water and vitamins they take in order to prolong their protest.

But their current plight has attracted no sympathy from authorities, who see the strikers -- most of whom belong to far-left underground groups with violent records -- as terrorists.

Their laborious rehabilitation and care now depends mostly on relatives and fellow militants who run "houses of life" -- flats like the one in which Cepe lives -- where the disabled relearn basic tasks together.

"This house is our bridge from prison to normal life," Esmahan Ekinci, 46, says haltingly.

Ekinci's condition has improved since her release two years ago when "I was watching everything happening around as on a TV screen, unable to perceive and communicate."

She now attends social functions, contributes to a newsletter dedicated to the "houses of life" and makes postcards that she sells at a neighborhood marketplace.

She also meticulously keeps a diary -- a precaution against memory gaps, which, doctors say, will haunt most strikers for the rest of their lives.

Some 60 percent suffer to a varying extent from a brain disorder caused mainly by alcoholism but also by malnutrition, says Levent Kutlu, a doctor with the Human Rights Foundation, which has helped in the physical and psychological treatment of more than 500 inmates released on health grounds.

"Full recovery is not possible. What we are trying to achieve is to restore their functions as much as we can so they can live a life as close to normal as possible," he says.

But in the "house of life" the stakes are much higher.

"Despite our physical disabilities, we want to be part of the life outside, to be in the midst of things," says Ekinci. "We are still against the F-type prisons," using the official term for the new jails.

Her resolve underscores the spirit of unrelenting dissidence and militant discipline in the house, whose dwellers were jailed for up to 12 years for membership in the Turkish Revolutionary Communist Union -- ?a Maoist group with a violent record.

The inauguration of the F-type jails, where one- and three-man cells replaced wards housing dozens, is seen as one of the most dramatic and controversial episodes in recent Turkish history.

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