ISTANBUL — Turkish authorities on Monday detained two teachers whose two-month-long hunger strike protesting their job dismissals has focused criticism on a harsh and ongoing purge of state institutions by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Images and videos of the teachers, Nuriye Gulmen, a professor of comparative literature, and Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, have been widely shared on social media, showing the increasingly gaunt pair wearing medical masks to prevent serious infection. They were detained early Monday in what their attorney, Selcuk Kozagacli, called a “completely unlawful apprehension,” according to footage of his remarks carried by local news sites.
The teachers were among more than 100,000 people who have been dismissed by executive decree as part of a government crackdown on enemies and dissidents after a failed coup last summer. The purge has been mainly directed at followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric whom Turkish authorities have called the mastermind of the coup attempt, which left more than 200 people dead.
But a report released Monday by Amnesty International said that the purge had not just focused on Gulenists and that it was “clear that a much wider group of people have been targeted.” In interviews with Amnesty, people who had been dismissed denied any wrongdoing or connections to terrorism, with many saying they had been targeted for opposition to Erdogan’s ruling party, for union activism or by people settling scores.
The report says those hit by the mass dismissals have been restricted from taking other government jobs and traveling because their passports have been canceled. “Others, along with their families, have lost housing and health care benefits provided through their jobs,” the report said.
A government decree in January called for the creation of an administrative commission that would allow people to appeal their dismissals. Amnesty said, however, that the commission lacked independence.
Public demonstrations against the dismissals have been rare. Gulmen and Ozakca were among the exceptions and in March began their hunger strike in Ankara, the capital. In an interview this month on the 65th day of her strike, Gulmen said that she had lost 20 pounds and that Ozakca had lost nearly twice that weight. Doctors had warned that their health was in danger, Gulmen said in a Skype interview from Ankara.
But she said Turks, perhaps for the first time, were paying attention to the plight of those dismissed: a group that included police officers, soldiers, academics, doctors and civil servants. Gulmen and Ozakca’s hunger strike has attracted prominent supporters, including members of parliament and celebrities. “People are resisting,” Gulmen said.
Also Monday, the trial for more than 200 people accused of involvement in the coup attempt got underway in Ankara. Most of the defendants are high-ranking military officers. Gulen, also a defendant, lives in exile in Pennsylvania and is being tried in absentia. Turkey has demanded his extradition from the United States.