Kurdish Lawmakers, Inmates End Hunger Strike in Turkey After Leader's Call

Move prompts speculation of steps toward a peace process, four years after Ankara's talks with Kurdish leader to end the conflict in country's southeast fell apart

Supporters and relatives of Kurdish prisoners in hunger strike react after a press conference to announce the end of their hunger strike, Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, May 26, 2019.
AFP

Several Kurdish lawmakers and thousands of prison inmates in Turkey have ended their hunger strike after a call from jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, one of the members of parliament said on Sunday, 200 days after the protest was launched.

Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Leyla Guven began a hunger strike in November in a bid to end Ocalan's years of isolation by securing him regular access to his family and lawyers.

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"Comrades who have committed themselves to hunger strikes and death fasts, I expect you to end your protest," Ocalan said in a statement read out by one of his lawyers in Istanbul, four days after they visited him for the second time this month.

One of the MPs who had been on hunger strike said at a news conference in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, that the protest was ending in response to Ocalan's call.

The resumption of lawyers' visits came a month before a mayoral election re-run in Istanbul, prompting speculation of steps towards a new peace process four years after Ankara's talks with Ocalan on ending conflict in the southeast of the country fell apart.

However, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul has denied there is any connection.

Ocalan is the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and United States.

He has been held in an island prison since Turkish special forces captured him in Kenya in 1999 and is revered by grassroots HDP supporters who see him as key to any peace process.

His lawyers visited him at the start of this month for the first time in nearly eight years and were allowed to hold talks with him again on Wednesday.

Looming elections

Guven was joined on hunger strike by three more HDP MPs, around 3,000 inmates in dozens of prisons across Turkey and activists in various countries, according to her party, the third largest in the assembly.

The HDP said seven people, six in Turkish prisons and one in Germany, had committed suicide in March in protest against Ocalan's isolation. Guven had been consuming water, vitamins and sugar for the duration of the hunger strike.

The PKK launched a separatist insurgency in southeast Turkey in 1984 although it subsequently moderated its stated goal to autonomy. More than 40,000 people have been killed in fighting since, mostly Kurds.

The HDP supported the opposition candidate who narrowly beat the candidate of President Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party in the Istanbul mayoral election on March 31. Election authorities annulled the vote, citing irregularities.

With the HDP indicating it will do the same in the June 23 election re-run, some commentators have suggested the decision to allow lawyers to visit Ocalan could be an attempt to win over Kurdish voters by the AK Party.

Kurds make up around 15 percent of the city's population of more than 15 million and mostly vote for either the pro-Kurdish HDP or the AK Party.