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Turkish folk singer dies two days after pausing 'death fast'

Ibrahim Gokcek had halted a 323-day death fast on Tuesday, before being taken to hospital
Ibrahim Gokcek in hospital after ending his death fast (Grup Yorum Solidarity Committee)

A Turkish folk musician and activist, who had been on a death fast for nearly a year, has died in hospital on Thursday, two days after pausing his fast.

Ibrahim Gokcek, 39, had spent 323 days on hunger strike to denounce the ban of concerts by his band, Grup Yorum, and the imprisonment of a number of band members.

On Tuesday, with his health deteriorating, the band announced that Gokcek was pausing the death fast, and he was taken to hospital.

In a statement on Thursday, the band said the singer had died in hospital.

His death follows that of fellow band member Helin Bolek on 3 April, and ally Mustafa Kocak, on 24 April.

Following the pause of Gokcek's fast, Grup Yorum said in a statement that they had nonetheless achieved a "political victory" and would be applying to the Istanbul governor's office on Tuesday to request permission to hold a concert.

"The whole world has heard about our resistance. We hope that our concert application will reach a positive conclusion," they said.

Gokcek's body was taken to a cemevi - a religious institution associated with the Alevi religious minority - in Istanbul Gezi district as supporters chanted revolutionary slogans:

The left-wing Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) issued a statement in the wake of Gokcek's death, saying the only people responsible were the government for ignoring the hunger strikers' demands.

"We couldn't keep Helin, Mustafa and Ibrahim alive, we couldn't break the unscrupulousness that sent them to death, but there is a big responsibility that they give to us," said the statement from the Central Executive Board.

"It is the responsibility of everyone who has a conscience to create a country where art, concerts, folk songs, thoughts and organizations become free."

Members of Grup Yorum have been accused of being part of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C), an armed Marxist-Leninist group responsible for carrying out numerous attacks on government officials and foreign officials in Turkey and abroad.

Speaking to Middle East Eye a day before Gokcek's death, fellow band member Ihsan Cibelik said that there had been an outpouring of support from domestic and international allies, who would be able to continue pressuring the Turkish government over their demands.

"Our demand has been taken by representatives of all parts of our people, intellectuals, artisans, politicians," he said.

"They promised to continue this struggle to get the rights of freedom to our concerts and freedom to our imprisoned members."

Grup Yorum have long been a staple in Turkey's music scene since they were were originally founded in 1985 at Marmara University by a group of students inspired by the Nueva Cancion movement in South America.

'The bourgeoisie does not have any argument about right, good and beautiful. We make songs of hopefulness, awareness and struggle ... this is regarded as very dangerous by the fascists'

- Ihsan Cibelik, Grup Yorum

Although dozens of musicians have passed through their ranks, the band have always stuck to their avowedly Marxist-Leninist outlook, championing leftist figures, workers' rights and the cause of an independent, socialist Turkey.

Their songs have touched upon a wide range of subjects, including lauding socialist icons such Deniz Gezmis, a Marxist revolutionary hanged in 1968, criticising the killing of 15-year old Berkin Elvan by police in 2014, gentrification, imperialism, women's rights, the struggle for Kurdish rights, and covering foreign socialist anthems such as 'Bella Ciao' and the 'Internationale'.

"Capitalism is not only foolish but also bloody," said Cibelik.

"The bourgeoisie does not have any argument about right, good and beautiful. We make songs of hopefulness, awareness and struggle ... this is regarded as very dangerous by the fascists."

Though they have denied any formal links with the DHKP-C, the band's sympathies for the organisation have been fairly clear in past.

It has not been uncommon for their supporters to chant slogans associated with the organisation, while a number of their songs have been dedicated to DHKP-C members. Grup Yorum band members have also attended the funerals of DHKP-C members.

The band's 25th anniversary concert, held in Inonu Stadium - home to the Besiktas football club - drew 55,180 people, one of the biggest paid concerts ever seen in the country.

A number of free concerts went even further - a free concert held in Izmir in 2015 reportedly saw more than a million attendees.

Severe crackdown

The July 2016 coup attempt saw the band facing a severe crackdown.

Six members of the band - Ali Araci, Inan Altin, Selma Altin, Emel Yesilirmak and Ihsan Cibelik, as well as Gokcek - were placed on the Turkish state’s “grey list” for wanted terrorists, with a 300,000 Turkish lira ($42,389) bounty placed on them.

Selma and Inan Altin fled the country and applied for asylum in France in July 2018. Gokcek was sent to prison after being arrested again in February 2019, but was released a year later on health grounds after he and other imprisoned band members began their hunger strikes on May 2019.

Initially, five members of the band went on hunger strike, but eventually just Bolek and Gokcek were left, turning their hunger strikes into death fasts.

Bolek died after 288 days, while Mustafa Kocak - who is not a Grup Yorum member, but was on a death fast in solidarity - died after 297 days of consuming only sugar water.

He was serving a life sentence also over his alleged links to the DHKP-C and involvement in the 2015 kidnapping of a Turkish prosecutor. He claimed he had been forced to sign a confession after being tortured in police custody.

His sister Mine told MEE her brother's death had been unexpected.

"It was a deep pain that I felt ... it was like they cut a piece of flesh from me whilst I was alive," she said, speaking via email.

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In a last conversation with his family, who had pleaded with him to hold on to life, he said that he had been unable to breathe properly for two days.

"We did not expect this to happen - maybe we did not want to think about it because death did not suit him," said Mine.

"He had no weapon other than his body, he used his body to describe the injustice he suffered. His resistance was as great as the size of the injustice he faced."

Human rights organisations, artists and activists in Turkey and abroad have called on the government to meet the demands of Grup Yorum and their allies.

"It is the political power that is responsible for the loss of lives," Ozturk Turkdogan, co-chair of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD), told MEE.

"IHD invites the government to take urgent steps to meet the hunger strikers' requests and to resolve this problem."