Turkish prisoners end hunger strike as twelfth man dies

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Istanbul - A prisoners' hunger strike has once more cast the spotlight on Turkey's human rights record, drawing widespread protest. Prisoners struck a deal with Turkey's government on Saturday to end the 69-day hunger strike that claimed 12 prisoners' lives and triggered riots around Turkey. Mediators brokered an agreement with about 900 inmates, at Istanbul's Bayrampasa prison, who are considered to be the ringleaders of the hunger strike taken up by 2,000 inmates in prisons across Turkey.

More than 300 prisoners immediately halted their protest, but human rights workers said about 20 lives were still at risk. A spokesman for the independent Human Rights Association said: "About 150 people are in hospital - around 20 of them in critical condition."

The hunger strike is the biggest crisis to confront the new Islamist- led government since it took power four weeks ago. It inherited the problem from the previous government but as the fast dragged on, demonstrations mushroomed around the country and prominent actors, musicians and writers added weight to the criticism.

Of equal concern to the government is the reaction of Europe, which keeps a close eye on Turkey's human rights record as it seeks closer ties with the European Union. After the first death of the hunger strike, last Sunday, the EU called on Ankara to end the fast or risk damaging ties which have often been strained by issues such as torture in Turkish prisons and the army's conduct in suppressing a Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Hans van den Broek, the European Commissioner for External Affairs, wrote to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Tansu Ciller, urging her to prevent further deaths, in what diplomats saw as a thinly veiled reminder of Ankara's promise to improve its human rights record in exchange for a lucrative customs deal with Europe.

Germany called on Turkey to push through promised improvements in jail conditions as quickly as possible. Germany, home to 2.2 million Turks, has seen a series of firebomb attacks on Turkish properties which police believe is the work of militant supporters of the strike.

Growing pressure from the shantytowns, where most of the leftist prisoners came from, also weighed on the ruling Welfare Party. Its votes come from the poor and the devout. "The death fasts carried the reactions to the shanties. And the shanties are Welfare's powerbase," said Ali Kirca, a columnist. Even the pro-Islamist press criticised the Welfare Party for taking up the tough line of previous administrations.

The hunger strike began in May after the Justice Minister Sevket Kazan's predecessor tried to break up what he said was the leftist inmates' control of some jails by transferring prisoners and bringing in restrictions. The prisoners' anger was further stoked by the appointment of Mehmet Agar, also a former hardline police chief, to the post of Interior Minister.

The new Welfare-led government came to power amid hopes that its vague philosophy of Islamist brotherhood could signal a change from years of human rights abuses. But the government will now be under even greater pressure to show that it can buck the trend and improve human rights.

"Welfare's trial by fire has begun," Kirca said. "It is in its hands to find the water to put the fire out."