Protestors sing victory as Turkish anti-riot police officers use water cannon during the funeral of Kurdish activist Zulkuf Gezen in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 18, 2019. Photo: Ilyas Akengin / AFP
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey – The death of a Kurdish activist on hunger strike in a Turkish prison sparked clashes between supporters and police near his grave on Monday as his lawyers and Kurdish party officials said he had committed suicide.
Zulkuf Gezen, who died late Sunday, was one of scores of detainees on hunger strike in support of a Kurdish lawmaker in Diyarbakir, a sensitive region where Turkish forces have battled Kurdish militants.
Clashes erupted on Monday when police fired water cannon to break up supporters of the main pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP who had gathered at his grave, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
“A prisoner lost his life yesterday. If the justice ministry had fulfilled its responsibility, our friend who lost his life would still be alive,” HDP co-leader Sezai Temelli told reporters.
Sezai Temelli (C), co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), takes part in the funeral of Kurdish activist Zulkuf Gezen in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 18, 2019. Photo: Ilyas Akengin / AFP
Gezen’s lawyers said he had hanged himself. He had been in prison for 12 years on charges of membership of the PKK Kurdish militant group.
In a statement, the public prosecutor’s office said Gezen had committed suicide in a bathroom, but rejected claims he killed himself as part of his protest.
A lawmaker from HDP or People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Leyla Guven, launched a hunger strike on November 8 while in jail to protest the prison conditions for Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. She has been released but other detainees followed her lead.
Turkish anti-riot police block members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) during the funeral of Kurdish activist Zulkuf Gezen in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 18, 2019. Photo: Ilyas Akengin / AFP
Ocalan is one of the founders of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a bloody rebellion against the Turkish state since 1984. It is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Ocalan has been serving a life sentence for treason in an island prison near Istanbul since his capture in 1999.
The HDP remains under the scrutiny of Turkish authorities, which accuse the party of links to the PKK. Several of its MPs are behind bars, including former party leader Selahattin Demirtas.
At least 171 prisoners are on hunger strike, according to the party, which has urged the international community to take action.
The PKK initially sought independence and more recently autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Fighting has left tens of thousands dead.