Group Yorum musician Ms Helin Bölek (28) died on the 288th day of her death fast. Another death-fasting band member, Mr İbrahim Gökçek, is in very critical condition. And two lawyers have turned their hunger strikes into death fast from within prisons.
One of the most famous political music bands in Turkey, Group Yorum has been under constant pressures of the government, especially after the abortive military coup in July 2016. Band members have been facing detentions, arrests, and bans due to their political ideas. Some members went on hunger strike to protest these pressures and two of them turned their hunger strikes into death fast in January 2020. On 3 April 2020, Ms Helin Bölek lost her life 288 days after she had initiated her hunger strike while in prison (19 June 2019). She was released from prison on 20 November 2019, but continued her strike due to ongoing pressures on the band. She turned her hunger strike into death fast on 20 January 2020. Helin was twenty-eight years old. The police attacked the mourners during her funeral ceremony and did not allow Helin even to have a proper burial. In a recent interview, she said that she did not want to harm herself, but that she only wanted her voice to be heard.
Group Yorum was established against the backdrop of the repressive political climate after the 1980 military coup. It has produced twenty-three albums and one film since 1985. Beside Turkish songs, the Group also has songs in Kurdish, Laz, Arabic and Circassian languages spoken in Anatolia. Over 400 legal cases have so far been filed against band members, many concerts and albums of the band were banned, and several band members have been arrested and/or tortured. Despite such oppression, the band is still popular both at home and abroad.
Over the last three years, the police have raided eight times the İdil Cultural Center in İstanbul, where the band carries out its activities. During the raids, musical instruments of the band were either broken or taken away, music books damaged. According to a statement by the band, the police arrested a total of 30 people in these raids. Band members initiated the hunger strike in June 2019 in protest of such attacks. The band demands the release of its arrested members, removal of arrest warrants against some other members, termination of incessant raids into the İdil Cultural Center, and an end to arbitrary bans on their concerts.
The other death-fasting band member, Mr İbrahim Gökçek, was arrested on 1 March 2019. He has been on hunger strike since 18 June 2019 and turned the strike into death fast on 4 January 2020. He was released from the Silivri Prison on 24 February 2020, but has continued his death fast as their demands have not been met. He is now in a very critical condition and may share the fate of Helin Bölek anytime soon.
And on 5 April 2020 (Lawyers Day in Turkey), two arrested lawyers, Ms Ebru Timtik ve Ms Aytaç Ünsal, declared from within prison that they turned their hunger strikes initiated in early January and February into death fast. Both lawyers are members of Contemporary Lawyers Association (Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği – ÇHD), who defended several Group Yorum musicians, including Ms Helin Bölek and İbrahim Gökçek. Together with 16 other ÇHD member lawyers, they were sentenced with terrorism related charges on 20 March 2019 in a courtroom into where the judges did not allow even the defendants’ lawyers. The Istanbul Bar Association’s press release on the unfairness of the trial read: “We are experiencing a first in the history of Turkish jurisdiction…We will never give up on our ideals of justice as … attorneys-at-law. We will never be silenced. Even if we are left alone.”
While the world is busy with fighting the coronavirus, many people in Turkey are simultaneously waging some other fights to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, like singing songs freely. We fully support the demands of band members and call upon the Turkish government to immediately stop bullying, criminalizing and repressing Group Yorum and other dissenting musicians and artists in the country.
And we once again call upon all democratic forces and institutions and the broader international public to prevent other deaths by taking immediate action and encouraging Turkish authorities to meet the rightful demands of death-fasting musicians and lawyers.
We could not prevent the death of Helin Bölek, but together we may prevent other deaths.
Please don’t remain silent. Please act now!
Feleknas Uca & Hişyar Özsoy
Co-spokespersons of the Foreign Affairs Commission
6 April 2020