ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police detained two teachers overnight who have been on hunger strike for more than two months protesting against a government crackdown in which they lost their jobs following last year’s failed coup, their lawyers said on Monday.
The detention of literature professor Nuriye Gulmen and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca brought 150 people onto the streets of Ankara, chanting for workers rights, before riot police fired tear gas to disperse them.
Some demonstrators were dragged away by police and detained, but others returned shortly afterwards trying to maintain their protest.
The teachers have said their hunger strike aimed to highlight the plight of around 150,000 state employees suspended or sacked after the July putsch, which president Tayyip Erdogan blames on followers of a U.S.-based cleric.
Gulmen wrote on her Twitter account overnight: “Political department police are trying to enter the house. They are now breaking the door... We have not and will not surrender!”
Turkish police detained them because they feared “that their protest could turn into death fasts and new Gezi protests,” Selcuk Kozagacli, a lawyer representing the teachers said.
He was referring to large anti-government demonstrations four years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against plans to build replica Ottoman barracks on Gezi park in central Istanbul.
“I’ve been a lawyer for a long time and have never seen such a reason for an arrest,” Kozagacli said by phone. “In Turkish law, this type of pre-emptive arrest based on assumptions does not exist,” he said.
‘TIRED, KNOCKED ABOUT’
Gulmen and Ozakca, surviving on a liquid diet of lemon and saltwater and sugar solutions, have lost weight during their protest and doctors said earlier this month their health was deteriorating.
They were tired and “knocked about a bit”, said Kozagacli, who met them in jail early on Monday, adding that they were planning to refuse to take the saltwater and sugar solutions in protest at their detention.
Ebru Timtik, another lawyer for the teachers, said a group of lawyers was trying to speak to the prosecutor, seeking their release.
Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants and has arrested nearly 50,000 others suspected of links to a movement backing cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Turkish officials say the crackdown is necessary because the Gulen movement had set up a “state within a state” that threatened national security. They point to the gravity of last July’s coup, when rogue troops commandeered warplanes to bomb parliament and used tanks to kill 240 people. Gulen has denied involvement.
Erdogan’s critics in Turkey and abroad say he is using the coup to purge opponents and muzzle dissent. Last month he narrowly won a referendum that grants him sweeping new powers.
Rights group Amnesty International said on Monday that the dismissals of state employees had been carried out arbitrarily and had a catastrophic impact on their lives.
“The failure of authorities to set out clear criteria for the dismissals or provide any individualized evidence of wrongdoing blows a hole in their claim that all the dismissals are necessary to counter terrorism,” it said.
“Instead, evidence suggests widespread abusive and discriminatory motives behind the purge.”
Turkey’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that it detained 1,284 suspects in counter terrorism raids last week, nearly one thousand of them over alleged links with Gulen’s network.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans, Andrew Heavens and Pritha Sarkar