Turkey urged to ease prison crisis
ANKARA, Turkey -- The European Union has warned candidate-country Turkey to resolve a dispute with prison inmates in which 20 hunger strikers have so far died.
The warning follows a two-day visit to Turkish capital Ankara by European parliamentarians Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Johannes Swoboda.
They issued a statement saying: "Every further death due to the hunger strikes would increase the concern and horror felt by the European Parliament and public.
"We do not want Turkey-EU relations and with the European Parliament and the European public to be adversely affected in an unnecessary way."
Human rights groups say some 800 inmates and relatives of prisoners are on hunger strike to protest against transfers from large dormitories to smaller cells.
The prisoners fear serving their sentences in smaller cells will make them more vulnerable to abuse by jailers.
Many of the hunger strikers, some of whom started their protest five months ago, are now taking little more than sugared water and activists warn that dozens more deaths are imminent.
Turkish officials raided jails across the country in December in an attempt to end the hunger strikes in an operation that led to the deaths of 30 prisoners and two soldiers.
Authorities defend the raids and the transfers as necessary to break the grip of political groups in the country's teeming and dilapidated jails.
They say that conditions in the new so-called "F-type" prisons are more in line with European standards, with modern facilities and an end to overcrowding.
But human rights groups say many prisoners are kept in isolation that amounts to an abuse of their rights.
The Council of Europe last month urged faster prison reform to avoid more loss of life. Cohn-Bendit and Swoboda met Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz on Tuesday to discuss the prison crisis and Turkey's plans to change the regulations for prisons.
"The abolition of the current practices of solitary confinement will be an important criterion to be considered," their statement said.
It urged dialogue between the government and inmates to end the hunger strikes. "This will be possible only if both sides are flexible and reach a compromise in good faith."
The EU granted Turkey candidate status in 1999 and last year it laid down a series of political and economic changes it wants to see before starting membership talks. Improving regard for human rights is one of the key criteria set by the EU.
Turkey is currently planning legal changes that will relax the regulations on access to communal areas for some prisoners previously banned from using such facilities.
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