ISTANBUL (Reuters)–Rioting Turkish prisoners fired flame-throwers at security forces on December 13 as the country’s justice minister urged an end to violent demonstrations that have so far cost 19 lives. Paramilitary police raiding Istanbul’s Umraniye jail had been met with flame-throwers made of kitchen gas canisters–petrol bombs–pipe bombs and cutting–piercing weapons. Resistance was equally stiff at Canakkale prison in western Turkey–where television pictures showed forces had used heavy machinery to knock large holes in the jail walls to get in.
In London–meanwhile–Turkish protesters threatening to set themselves on fire took over the giant London Eye ferris wheel on the bank of the River Thames and also occupied the London offices of the European Commission.
Turkish Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk called on the inmates of both jails to give up and put an end to the bloodiest clashes in years within Turkey’s prisons. Two paramilitary gendarmes had died along with at least 16 prisoners–most of whom burned themselves to death–when security forces stormed 20 prisons on December 12 to end hunger strikes aimed at blocking the transfer of prisoners to small cells from the large dormitories they now occupy. The protesters say that the small cells will make them more vulnerable to abuse by jailers. They are demanding that the plans be scrapped and sections of strict anti-terrorism laws–under which many of them were jailed–be repealed.
Another 78 prisoners were injured in the raids. On December 13–a 17th prisoner died of burns in Ankara’s Numune hospital–while at least 12 inmates died at Istanbul’s Bayrampasa prison.By nightfall on December 12–security forces had taken control of most of the prisons–with only the prisoners at Umraniye and Canakkale still holding out.
The operation was slammed by Greece–a long-time rival and critic of Turkey–and the European Commission expressed concern. Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis censured Turkey–saying "Yesterday’s events in Turkey show a violent stance against people who cannot defend themselves. Human rights were not observed." Moreover–Simitis reminded Ankara that observing human rights was of prime importance for a country seeking to join the European Union.
Spokesman for the EU–Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen expressed concern.“We are worried–and we expressed these worries yesterday and once again we call on all parties to stop the violence.”
The London protesters described themselves as “families and friends of political prisoners in Turkey.” A spokesman for British Airways–which runs the London Eye–said 22 protesters had boarded the the attraction and were occupying two of the wheel’s compartmen’s. Police said the protesters had threatened to set fire to themselves. Earlier–a man and a woman chanting “Stop the massacres in Turkish prisons!” were dragged by attendants from the public gallery in the House of Commons while Prime Minister Tony Blair was answering questions from members of parliament.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said that it was deeply concerned and called upon the Turkish authorities to set up an independent investigation into the deaths and suspend from their duties those alleged to be responsible–pending the outcome of the investigation.