Doğa Ulaş Eralp
Nov 26 2017

Nuriye and Semih’s hunger for freedom

Some 150,000 people have been sacked from their jobs in Turkey with executive orders since last year. After the July 2016 coup attempt, which left nearly 250 people killed and more than 2,000 wounded, the government had declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames it on the followers of preacher Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive cleric who, from his mansion home in rural Pennsylvania, heads a non-transparent Islamic sect, long involved in global education and aid projects. 

The purge of was therefore claimed to target public workers who took part in the Gülenist network. The emergency powers, the legal basis of the purges, enable the government to issue executive orders and publish lists of the names of people to be expelled from their jobs with immediate effect. There is no right of appeal.

Riot police trys to disperse protesters demonstrating in support of two hunger-strikers who were taken into custody in May, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 19, 2017. AFP / ADEM ALTAN
Riot police trys to disperse protesters demonstrating in support of two hunger-strikers who were taken into custody in May, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 19, 2017. AFP / ADEM ALTAN

According to German political scientist Carl Schmitt, sovereign governments can transcend, violate, and abrogate the rule of law in the name of the public good or national security. They are the only authority with the power to decide on the state of exception, where the rule of law is indeterminately postponed without being eliminated. 

In this way, many democracies and hybrid democracies maintain and exert control over their citizens through the state of exception. Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben said those affected by this sort of repressive exceptionalism are best described by the Roman legal concept of homo sacer - a person purged from wider society and dispossessed of rights and duties. 

Executive orders have so far created around 150,000 homo sacer, in Turkey; political zombies condemned to live the rest of their lives as non-entities with no recourse to any legal means or prospect of future employment. 

Although some of those purged from the public sector such as those in the judiciary, police and the military may have used their positions to exert influence and discriminate against others in the name of the Gülen network, many innocent people have been caught up in the dragnet. More than 8,600 academics have lost their jobs, many of whom had no ties with the Gülenist movement. In almost all cases, tangible evidence on criminal activity are missing. 

Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça are two of them.

Gülmen, an academic in comparative literature, and Özakça, a schoolteacher, began a non-violent protest in November 2016 by simply sitting in front of the human rights monument in the capital Ankara to demand their jobs back. 

The government circles and pro-government media, however, persistently raised claims that they were linked to an outlawed leftist group, Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C).

In March, after four months of protests with no success in getting their jobs back, Gülmen and Özakça launched a hunger strike, consuming only water, sugar, salt, herbal tea and vitamin B. As their protest gained national and international media exposure, they were arrested in June and jailed on charges of being part of a banned radical leftist organisation.

The pair continued their protest in prison. Özakça was released in October and put under house arrest, while Gülmen was transferred to a secure hospital unit due to health concerns.

Turkish primary school teacher Semih Ozakca (L) and academic Nuriye Gulmen (R) demonstrate with fellow protestors during a hunger strike in protest to a decree-law on May 15, 2017 in Ankara. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN
Turkish primary school teacher Semih Ozakca (L) and academic Nuriye Gulmen (R) demonstrate with fellow protestors during a hunger strike in protest to a decree-law on May 15, 2017 in Ankara. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN

Those who are purged are no longer able to find employment in the public sector and many private businesses are hesitant to hire them for fear of consequences. 

There have been several incidents where mothers with new-born babies were taken to prison merely hours after delivery, or cases where both parents were arrested, leaving the care of their children to social services. Some detainees have committed suicide in prison. 

Other suspects, primarily those accused of affiliation with the Gülenist network, have looked for illegal ways to escape the country. The recent tragedy of the Maden family, whose boat sank off the coast of Greek island of Lesbos is a sad reminder of the human cost of the crackdown. 

Hüseyin Maden, a physics teacher in a provincial town in the Black Sea region, was charged with being part of the Gülenist network with his wife and supporting the coup attempt. The couple along with their three children went into hiding and later tried to cross the Aegean to Greece on a rented boat. It sank a couple of miles from the shore. Their lifeless bodies were washed up on a Lesbos beach.

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 16, 2017 boats and piles of life jackets used by refugees and migrants lie at a dump in Molyvos village, on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 16, 2017 boats and piles of life jackets used by refugees and migrants lie at a dump in Molyvos village, on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The power of authoritarian regimes is defined through their control of their citizens’ bodies. Erdoğan’s purge follows a similar method of discipline and punishment of the masses resulting in thousands of socially dead people with no prospects.

The hunger strike of Gülmen and Özakça, therefore, seeks to reject state control over their bodies, and reverse Erdoğan’s ‘biopolitics.’

Their demands are straightforward; they want to return to their classrooms and see an end to the purge of academics not linked to the coup attempt.

Yet, Turkish authorities insist to brand the pair as radical leftist agitators and refused to hear their demands.

Doctors say both are now little more than skin and bones and face irreversible health issues even if they end their protest right now.