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Human Rights Watch condemned violent assault by Turkish security forces on hunger striking prisoners. The prisoners were protesting inmate transfers to a new type of high-security prisons.

According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an independent local organization, eighteen inmates in sixteen prisons have been killed--either shot by security forces or burned by self-immolation. The Interior Ministry has stated that prisoners' gunfire killed two gendarmes. Security forces used smoke, gas or percussion grenades and firearms, and also demolition machines to enter the prison wards.
"If the operation was an effort to preserve life, as claimed by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit this morning, it was a terrible failure," said Jonathan Sugden, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry today began transferring inmates from the raided prisons to the first of the new high-security facilities, known as F-type prisons, breaking previous public commitments that they would not take this step precipitately.

The hunger strikers are prisoners convicted or on trial for supporting illegal armed organizations under Turkey's wide-ranging Anti-Terror Law. They are currently in wards holding sixty or more inmates. Turkish authorities claim they aim to remove hunger striking prisoners from intimidatory influence of political organizations.

Hunger striking prisoners have been hospitalized, where it is understood that they are continuing their fast.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized the use of soldiers to guard prison perimeters and suppress prison protests. Since 1995, Turkish soldiers have beaten, shot or tortured to death twenty-eight prisoners, not counting yesterday's figures. They are not trained for prison work, and may have been involved in the fifteen-year armed conflict in the southeastern provinces; when brought into prisons, they frequently use the opportunity to attack prisoners.

"These deaths were entirely avoidable," said Sugden. "The current crisis in Turkish prisons could have been solved with patience, transparency and a readiness to consult. After all this violence, a positive resolution to the death fasts seems more remote than before."

F-type prisons introduce solitary or small group isolation for inmates who have traditionally been housed in ward-like facilities. Human Rights Watch has long opposed these facilities. In a report published earlier this year, and in meetings with the Turkish government in May, the international monitoring organization argued that F-type prisons as originally conceived would impose intense and potentially damaging isolation that could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. For months, Human Rights Watch has called on the Turkish government not to transfer inmates to F-type prisons until the government publicly committed to managing them in line with international standards, and to establishing a monitoring system to ensure that prisoners would not be mistreated. Human Rights Watch cited prolonged isolation as a serious concern.

In June the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited the first of the F-type prisons and recently published preliminary observations emphasizing the need for prisoners to have substantial out-of-cell time, and an opportunity to take part in a range of constructive activities.

Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk's announcement that transfers had begun to the first F-type prison at Sincan, outside Ankara, marked a clear reneging on promises made to those seeking to resolve the impending crisis over the F-type prisons. Throughout the past month, the Justice Minister repeatedly stated that he would make no transfers to the new prisons until alternative proposals from civil society organizations such as the Bar Association and the Turkish Medical Association had been fully considered, and the regulation shaping the regime for the new prisons had been published. None of this has happened, nor did the government adopt a law on the prisons as promised.

Hunger strikers oppose the introduction of cell-based prisons because they fear that they will be subjected to a regime of isolation and may be at increased risk of ill-treatment. Some observers believe that ward-type facilities allow the prisoners to exercise more control over daily life and, through contact with fellow inmates, to continue their political activities. Tough political control among inmates has sometimes extended to "executing" fellow prisoners suspected of acting as informers by strangling or knifing them.

BACKGROUND: The crisis that brought on the 61-day hunger strike was almost entirely of the Justice Ministry's own making. The large ward system, in operation since the beginning of the Turkish republic, had left prison discipline almost completely in the hands of the prisoners. In wards holding prisoners under the Anti-Terror Law this meant that the influence of illegal organizations held sway, but in common criminal wards this neglect resulted in a harsh pecking order, where access to basic needs and privileges depends on physical strength or the ability to pay a bribe. Unfortunately, plans to move away from the ward system were developed over the past decade, more or less in secret, by Justice Ministry officials who resisted consulting with either local and international human rights organizations or intergovernmental bodies working on penal issues. The result was the construction of a series of prisons with a structure which runs directly counter to current thinking about the humane treatment of prisoners.

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