Hunger-striking Turkish teacher in first court appearance

Former teacher Semih Ozakca is on a hunger strike to protest his dismissal in an unprecedented purge in Turkey

Sincan (Turkey) (AFP) – A jailed former teacher who has been on a six-month hunger strike to protest his dismissal in a crackdown following Turkey’s failed coup appeared in court for the first time Thursday, telling the judge he only “wanted his job back”.

Semih Ozakca and academic Nuriye Gulmen have been on hunger strike since March over their sacking by government decree under the state of emergency imposed after last year’s attempted overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ozakca, 27, appeared emaciated but in good spirits as he went before the court in Sincan outside Ankara to applause from his supporters in the public gallery.

He exchanged comments with his wife Esra — who has been on hunger strike since her husband’s imprisonment in May — and waved to friends, an AFP reporter said.

Gulmen, 34, was not brought to court after being transferred to intensive care on Tuesday. The pair’s families said she was moved against her will to prevent her appearing in court, a move which Ozakca also denounced.

– ‘Fighting for my bread’ –

Neither were present when their trial opened on September 14.

“We went on hunger strike to get our job back. That’s it,” Ozakca said. 

“I want my job, I want my students,” he said, as he decried the “political” trial.

“They are jailing us to intimidate” all those who have been sacked, he told the court.

“Had they given us our jobs back from the beginning, our protest would have ended just as quickly,” Ozakca added. “I’m fighting for my job, my bread.”

Throughout his defence, his grandparents were stifling heavy sobs.

This second hearing is taking place under heavy security at the Sincan prison complex, where they have been held. 

Before the trial began, Turkish policemen used pepper spray to disperse protesters and at least one protester was roughly detained during a brief clash, an AFP photographer said.

– ‘Critical condition’ –

The two have become symbols of the biggest purge in the country’s history and a rallying cause for critics who believe thousands of people have been unjustly affected by the crackdown.

They were arrested in May on charges of belonging to the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), which has carried out sporadic attacks in recent years and has been called a “terror” group by Ankara, the European Union and the United States.

They face up to 20 years in prison for charges which include making propaganda for a terrorist organisation. The pair say the charges have been trumped up to punish them for protesting.

There have been growing fears for the health of the pair, who are only consuming salty or sugary water, herbal tea and vitamin B1.

Ozakca said this week that Gulmen has lost 18 kilos (40 pounds) and he was down 33 kilos.

Beyza Gulmen, who was present among dozens of supporters, told AFP that her sister Nuriye “is in a critical condition.”

More than 140,000 public sector workers have been suspended or fired since the attempted coup in July 2016. At least 50,000 people have been also arrested in the ensuing crackdown that has been criticised by Ankara’s Western allies.

Last week a court jailed 14 lawyers from the law firm representing the two teachers, the Office of People’s Rights (HHB), on charges of “membership of an armed terror group”, referring to the DHKP-C.


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