Members of Turkish band Grup Yorum close to death on hunger strike

Mustafa Kocak, Helin Bölek, and Ibrahim Gökcek of the band Grup Yorum have been on hunger strike for over 250 days. The group was banned in 2018 by the Turkish authorities who accuse members of being affiliated to the DHKP-C, a militant Marxist group whose supporters who regularly attended Grup Yorum concerts. Grup Yorum runs a community centre in Okmeydanı in Istanbul, a neighbourhood where many people support the DHKP-C.

An Urgent Appeal released by friends of Grup Yorum on March 19 stated that Mustafa Kocak had been transferred to Kırklar prison, Izmir where he had decided to start a “death fast”. The appeal also stated that, prior to Kocak being moved, he had been “severely tortured” at Şakran prison.

Bölek and Gökcek had been arrested in early 2019. Bölek was released at the end of 2019 and continued her hunger strike, while Gökcek was released in February 2020 on medical grounds. However, on the night of March 11, both were arrested and taken to Ümraniye Training and Research Hospital, where it seems that the authorities had decided to force feed them. They were again released on March 16.

The Urgent Appeal went on to note that Bölek and Gökcek are on hunger strike to demand “the end of attacks on their performances, the lifting of concert bans, the cancellation of wanted lists, the end of police attacks and destruction in their cultural centre, the end of arbitrary trials and freedom for their imprisoned members.”

Mustafa Kocak meanwhile alleges that he was tortured by prison officials at Şakran prison, and subjected to forced feeding on March 13. He told his lawyer that he was not allowed to use a toilet and had been forced to urinate on himself, and that he had been sexually abused with a truncheon, tied up with ropes and multiple handcuffs and leg cuffs, and he had materials forcibly inserted into his mouth to stop him from shouting. 

Kocak is serving a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, which he says he was tortured into confessing to. Kocak’s mother stated in 2019 that: “My innocent son was the victim of an informer who wanted to liberate himself.” Kocak says that the testimony of this informer was the only evidence apart from from his forced confession.

A video showing the emaciated bodies of the hunger strikers was recently shared on Facebook, showing how much weight the hunger strikers have lost. In a phone call to his family on March 8 Kocak was barely able to speak, and said: “Living is very beautiful, I do not want to die.” 

In January, the Istanbul Bar Association, Istanbul Medical Chamber, the Artists’ Initiative, and Art Assembly released a joint statement in an attempt to gain more attention for Grup Yorum’s hunger striking members. 

The campaign group Freedom for Grup Yorum has also written to the UN Rapporteur on Torture regarding the case, and UK-based Kurdish solidarity group Peace in Kurdistan also wrote to the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the treatment of Grup Yorum members, demanding action from the UK government. Many lawyers and officials, such as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party [HDP] Istanbul deputy Dilşat Canbaz, have also raised serious concerns about the case.

It seems unlikely that Turkish authorities will improve their treatment of Grup Yorum members, preferring to let pro-Kurdish political prisoners starve themselves to death rather than give in to their demands for a fair trial. Kocak and Gökcek are now both incredibly thin and unwell - Kocak’s sister told Bianet he weighs just 33 kilograms, and can no longer walk or go to the toilet on his own. 

The treatment of Grup Yorum members is part of a wider pattern of Turkish courts convicting opposition politician and dissenting writers, artists and musicians with affiliation to banned groups.

The irony for the Turkish state is that, when it convicts musicians or politicians of being terrorist sympathisers, it creates martyrs of those it locks up, and encourages more people from marginalised communities to sympathise with militant groups like the PKK or DHKP-C.