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In 1979 Coskun Üsterci began a prison sentence, of which he served nearly 12 years. During his imprisonment he moved from belonging to a leftist political group which advocated armed struggle to becoming a strong advocate of nonviolence. Here he talks with Andreas Speck about his prison experiences and the current struggle against isolation cells.

The praxis of resistance

Coskun, you were imprisoned for almost 12 years, from 1979 to 1991, when the rest of your sentence was changed to a suspended sentence. What was important for you in prison and where did you get your strength from ?

The most important source of strength was my belief in being right. But this wasn’t a blind belief. I was objecting to exploitation and human rights violations. I desired democratic and economic development in our country. These were quite simple demands, compared to western standards. But there were parts of our society and state which were blocking this desire for change.

When I was in university I worked in a hotel for very low pay. A group of colleagues and I joined the trade union and the employer fired us. The other workers also joined the trade union to support us and the employer declared a lockout. We spent months in a tent in front of the hotel. There was police pressure and fascist attacks on us. The struggle itself - for example in this case and later in prison - made me feel as though I was right and helped me to maintain my hopes and dreams for the future. Furthermore, it was me who chose the political path which lead to prison. Inasmuch as as it was the result of my own will, it wasn't too difficult to bear my life in prison.

During your time in prison you probably received support from people who were not imprisoned - from people outside. What kind of support did you receive? How was the relationship between you [and the other prisoners] and those "at liberty" providing support? How did you solve conflicts?

I was very at ease during my first months in prison. The coup d'etat [the military coup of September 1980] hadn't occurred yet. The support I received from friends and family was great. And the most important thing: there was a very strong ongoing struggle outside, which helped us to keep our hopes high. But with the coup suddenly everything changed. There was no support from friends anymore, most of them were also imprisoned and so joined us inside. Some died during torture or during clashes, many had to leave the country. The first years after the coup were extremely difficult, I only received support from my mother and my sister. Despite the obstacles and difficulties they suffered, they never ceased in their support. The situation for the other prisoners was the same.

There has always been tension and competition between the leftist factions in Turkey and this tension caused violent incidents between them. The serious conditions in prison taught us to leave those tensions aside and to act in solidarity - with some exceptions. We learned the role of dialogue in overcoming conflict.

Maybe I was a bit lucky. In Gaziantep prison - where I was held for seven years - I had companions who were really reflective and critical. After long discussions we dissolved our group differentiations and hierarchies and established a prisoners union based on non-hierarchical and democratic principles. Through this we were able to resolve conflict between prisoners and with the prison board, by dialogue.

The solidarity between prisoners also strengthened the solidarity between the families of the prisoners. This was an interactive process, which led to the establishment of the Human Rights Association (IHD).

After your release, you joined the Izmir War Resisters Association. When Osman Murat Ulke was imprisoned in 1996 - for refusing military service - you were part of the group supporting him. How did you feel in this situation? Did you see problems between Osman in prison and the group outside?

Ossi's imprisonment has affected me a lot. I coped with the trauma of my own imprisonment in a way. After being released I worked for four years at the Human Rights Foundation (TIHV), a group which I was a client of myself when I was released. This institution deals with the rehabilitation and treatment of torture survivors and former prisoners. So I learned a lot about trauma and the ways to overcome it. But Ossi's case showed me that I wasn't as resistant as I thought. I was one of the few who was able to visit him and I felt very bad when I saw him in military prison behind the balustrades. A lot of things which I forgot long ago emerged again.

The prison where Ossi stayed was much smaller than the Izmir prison and politically much more conservative. At the time police pressure was very high. The prison was part of a big and important military base and so the security measures were very strict. The difficulties we had when we visited Ossi or when we observed his trials, made me understand how my supporters must have suffered. But nevertheless the situation wasn't as harsh as it was after the coup and I shared my experience with the younger friends to give them strength in confronting these difficulties. There was a strong feeling of solidarity between the group and Ossi. I don't think Ossi ever felt left alone during that period. But his imprisonment evolved into a vicious circle and most of his supporters felt very weak, helpless and even responsible for the situation. [Between 1997 and 1999 Ossi was imprisoned for his refusal to participate in military service in Turkey. See PN 2437 (p14) for background to his case.] These feelings, followed by fatigue and some understandable worries, caused a divergence between Ossi and his supporters in their perception of the CO-process - though I don't think there were further problems.

Another important aspect for prisoners is the support they receive from their family, which, in my opinion, was insufficient in Ossi's case.

When you were imprisoned you didn't exactly subscribe to the ideas of nonviolence. What did make you embrace nonviolence? What role did your experience in prison play?

The role of my prison experience was important in adopting the ideas of nonviolence. As I said; I was surrounded by a group of reflective people and we were reading and discussing, when we weren't busy resisting attacks. The organisation I belonged to before I was imprisoned was the most popular socialist group at that time and we were advocating armed struggle. Before the coup we felt almost unbeatable and, furthermore, the majority of the population seemed to support the left. But the day after the coup all the sympathy was directed to the army and the left found itself abandoned. So the first question to clarify in prison was: why did people leave us so suddenly? The key to the answer was quite dramatic: violence.

Before the coup the fascists created an atmosphere of continuous violence, something which we completely participated in. People withdrew their support, but we failed to realise this in those chaotic days.

In prison the balance of power was a disadvantage for us, so we had to develop resistance by nonviolent means. The new forms of resistance often proved successful. When we used violence the response was more brutal and unrestrained, during the years after the coup many people died in the prison as a consequence of attacks by the prison authorities.

Another observation of mine was the higher mobilisation and participation quota when we took our decisions on the basis of democratic principles. We weren't diminishing that fast when the resistance took longer than expected or when there were serious difficulties. But of course there were always unexpected attacks by the [prison] board, just to assert their authority or to terrorise us. In those cases nonviolent resistance helped to reduce the effects of the attacks.

To summarise: the whole praxis of resistance in prison made me start reflecting on nonviolence.

Right now the hunger strike by prisoners in Turkey is probably one of the most important issues. This hunger strike has continued for more than 200 days now and left several prisoners dead. What is your impression of this hunger strike? What do you think about the situation now - do you think the prisoners should admit they are defeated and end the strike?

There have been hundreds of hunger strikes in Turkish prisons since the 1980 coup and some of them resulted in the deaths of prisoners. But hunger strikes have lost their impact on state and the public because they have been used too frequently and in the wrong way. But this time the reasons for the strike were really just and legitimate. Because prisoners were confronted with a threat against their identity, their health and even their lives.

The subject of the conflict, the F-Type prisons, are the Turkish version of “high security” prisons, which have been used in the US and Europe for many years. The basic principle of these prisons is isolation. Isolation has serious impacts on the physical and psychological health of prisoners and is a kind of torture. This fact is clearly underlined in scientific research and reports from human rights institutions. It is obvious that isolation will cause existential problems in a country where torture is systematic and where prison authorities see violence as their only tool. In fact the proof of this came with the brutal prison intervention of 19 December 2000, when 32 people died and F-Type prisons were brought into use.

But the hunger strikers made also serious mistakes. When the hunger strike was in its fiftieth days and public support was at its peak, the Minister of Justice declared that the F-Type prison wouldn't be opened until the lawyers bar association, the medical chamber and other relevant professional unions consented. Of course he was bluffing. The prisoners demanded concrete guarantees and continued with the hunger strike. But with experience it was obvious that the authorities would open the F-Type prison anyway and that they were preparing an attack on the prisoners. Exactly at that point an armed leftist organisation, which was supporting and involved with the hunger strike, attacked a police bus. That was the turning point. State repression increased, the public withdrew support and the attack on the prisoners gathered legitimacy. Had the prisoners accepted the bluff - and started to make the compromise concrete - it would have been much more difficult for the authorities to legitimise their attacks on the prison. The prisoners missed this chance and were defeated. Since then the hunger strike has been overwhelmed by other agendas and there is no practical or political meaning in continuing with it. The prisoners should accept their defeat and finish the hunger strike. They have to develop new forms of struggle, which fit the new circumstances.

This hunger strike has received a lot of criticism. Some of this criticism is directed against hunger strikes in general - against giving up one's own life to achieve a political goal - other criticism is directed towards the way this particular hunger strike is organised, which puts a lot of power into the hands of the political parties the prisoners belong to, and doesn't leave the final decision to the prisoner him/herself. What do you think about this criticism?

Of course the essence is life. Therefore I share the criticism. Death seems to me to be the easier way out, when oppression is unbearable. It's more courageous to go on in spite of it. Hunger strikes can only be a tool at the last resort, when all other methods have failed. It's a tactic which has a limited duration.

The criticism of how the hunger strike is organised is also important. Apparently the prisoners themselves are deciding how to act. But the structure of the groups to which they belong is so hierarchical and monolithic that it is almost impossible for them to resist the ethical and psychological atmosphere and to reflect and decide independently. It is very traumatic to walk for months and months on the edge of life and death. Some of the prisoners have made their choice in favour of life, but their companions have been intolerant and declared them traitors.

Let's try to think of the time after the hunger strike. What do you think are the most pressing issues for prisoners and prison support activities in Turkey in the near future?

We live in a culture in which death is sanctified and martyrdom is exalted. The leftist movement plays an important role in the continuity of this culture. With the current hunger strike the deaths became more of an issue than the F-Type prisons. When the hunger strike is over it will still be necessary to concentrate on the F-Type prisons and how they are used. The torture continues and so the protection of the prisoners from torture will remain the first priority. It is also important to struggle against isolation and its physical and psychological effects. The treatment of former hunger strikers is a serious matter. Some of them are released temporarily and receive treatment, but most of them have permanent health problems. Some even can't continue their daily life without assistance. The ones who recover - relatively - will be imprisoned again. But they need long-term treatment which they can't receive in prison. This will be one of the serious medium-term problems.

Izmir War Resisters, have recently decided to cease as an organisation. If you would like more information about Turkish antimilitarist groups, see p11 of this issue of Peace News.

Andreas Speck works in the international office of War Resisters' International