An Ankara academic and teacher who have been on hunger strike for over four months after being sacked in the wake of Turkey’s failed coup have emerged as symbols of the biggest purge in the country’s history.
Academic Nuriye Gulmen and teacher Semih Ozakca were fired by a government decree under the state of emergency imposed after the July 15 coup bid last year.
They then held daily demonstrations in the heart of Ankara wearing vests with the simple words: “I want my job back,” winning national and international media attention.
On March 9, they went on a hunger strike to challenge their dismissal and were jailed in May on terror charges.
The pair are now over four months into their hunger strike, only consuming salty or sugary water, herbal teas and vitamin B1.
“We know that at this stage of a hunger strike, there is a risk of death,” their lawyer Selcuk Kozagacli told AFP, adding they were suffering hearing and eyesight problems while their muscles were very weak.
But Gulmen and Ozakca are just two of more than 100,000 people sacked by the Turkish state after the attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Under the state of emergency imposed a few days after the failed coup, Turkish authorities fired judges, civil servants, teachers and academics, accusing them of being supporters of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Ankara accuses Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, of ordering the failed putsch. Gulen strongly denies the charges.
Turkish officials say the actions are needed to expunge the influence of Gulen’s movement and any other banned organisations from the state sector.
Anyone who feels unfairly treated can appeal to a commission that begins its work next week, although it remains unclear how it will be able to examine so many cases.
Opponents of Erdogan say the emergency powers are being used to purge anyone who has been critical including those, like Gulmen and Ozakca, who deny any links to Gulen but have a history of left-wing activism.
In a report published in May, rights group Amnesty International criticised the “arbitrary” and “politically motivated” dismissals.
But Turkish officials have expressed impatience with the interest in the pair’s case, arguing they were jailed for membership of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), an outlawed Marxist group that has carried out sporadic attacks.
The pair deny any link to banned groups.
Kozagacli said that since the 80th day of their hunger strike, they have not had a medical check-up. They rejected the medical team sent by the prison administration after the doctor threatened to force-feed them if they lost consciousness.
“Their situation, their health and other needs are being followed very closely,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said earlier this month.
“End this hunger strike,” Bozdag said, adding: “This is not the way to seek rights.”
Their trial begins on September 14. “We cannot wait for that date, we do not have the luxury of time,” lawyer Kozagacli told AFP.
But it is not just those sacked affected by the purges: their families and partners are also impacted. A European diplomatic source estimated “around a million people are directly or indirectly affected by the purges”.
Indeed, once sacked, the fired individual loses their income as well as their social security for them and close relatives, Amnesty said.
The powerful teachers’ union Egitim-Sen is able to provide 1,200 Turkish liras ($336) a month for its sacked members.
But this is hardly enough to make ends meet and those sacked find it impossible to find new work.
Acun Karadag, one of over 33,000 sacked teachers, protests every day in support of Gulmen and Ozakca.
After her dismissal last year, Karadag and her 19-year-old daughter were forced to move in with her sister.
But her daughter Ipek, who should have been preparing this year for her university entrance exam, preferred to support her mother, remaining each day by her side.
Esra Ozakca, married to Semih since 2013, was sacked in February herself. She started a hunger strike the day her husband was arrested.
“They have not only cut us from our jobs, but from our lives,” she lamented, adding this time last year the couple were on holiday.
“Now we are on hunger strike. They are trying to condemn the people sacked to a social death,” she added. “You cannot hide it from anyone, because there are public lists.”
Both Acun Karadag and Esra Ozakca are now under house arrest.
A judge who was sacked last August told AFP the hardest part was having to explain his situation to others. “I am part of the leftist opposition,” he insisted, asking to remain anonymous.
“I have no links with any terrorist organisation.”
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