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Grup Yorum: Turkish folk band vows to continue struggle after pausing death fast

Band member Ibrahim Gokcek temporarily suspended his fast following the deaths of a fellow band member and an ally
An emaciated Ibrahim Gokcek during the latter stages of his death fast (Grup Yorum Solidarity Committee)

Images of the emaciated body of Ibrahim Gokcek, lying in his home in Istanbul, provide a stark indicator of the damage that 323 days of hunger strike can inflict.

Now weighing just 40kg, the 39-year-old bassist for Turkish folk band Grup Yorum had maintained his "death fast" to call attention to his band's mistreatment by the government, which has banned their concerts, arrested numerous band members and repeatedly raided their cultural centre in Istanbul.

On Tuesday, with his health failing rapidly, Gokcek finally called off his fast. Despite the government's continued refusal to meet their demands, 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.

A photo released by supporters of Ibrahim Gokcek in hospital after ended his fast (Grup Yorum Solidarity Committee)
Ibrahim Gokcek in hospital after he ended his fast (Grup Yorum Solidarity Committee)

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

The band added that Gokcek had been taken to hospital in an ambulance.

In a letter last Thursday addressed to supporters of his campaign, Gokcek said he had no desire to go the same way as Helin Bolek - another Grup Yorum member who died on 3 April while observing the death fast - or Mustafa Kocak, an ally of the band who died on 24 April.

Last week, Grup Yorum member Ali Araci appeared in court on charges of membership to a "terrorist organisation" - a charge that also been levelled at Gokcek as well as band members Inan Altin, Selma Altin, Emel Yesilirmak and Ihsan Cibelik.

All are 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.

Cibelik, who currently lives in Germany, told Middle East Eye that Gokcek was not ending his fast, but only temporarily pausing it.

'Now Ibrahim is still alive. And our demand has been taken by representatives of all parts of our people, intellectuals, artisans, politicians'

- Ihsan Cibelik, Grup Yorum member

"Now Ibrahim is still alive. And 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... so we collectively decided to break [the fast]."

Cibelik added that the band would continue to apply for concerts in Izmir and Istanbul - and if there were no positive developments, the death fast could be restarted.

Despite a government amnesty that has seen thousands of prisoners released in Turkey over coronavirus fears - including a notorious far-right mob boss - Araci and the other imprisoned members of Grup Yorum have remained in jail.

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.

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."

A Marxist-Leninist folk band

Grup Yorum have long been a staple in Turkey's music scene, despite being the subject of state repression right from the group's inception.

Although dozens of musicians have passed through their ranks since their founding in 1985, the band have always stuck to their avowedly Marxist-Leninist outlook, championing leftist figures, workers' rights and the cause of an independent, socialist Turkey.

"The government is scared of how Grup Yorum can affect people with its songs, how many people it can bring together," said Bulut Asik, a spokesperson for the Grup Yorum Solidarity Committee, based in London.

A video of the band's 25th anniversary concert in Istanbul in 2010, playing the song 'Daglara Gel'

The band was originally founded at Marmara University by a group of students inspired by the Nueva Cancion movement in South America.

Like their comrades in countries such as Chile and Argentina, leftists in Turkey had been subjected to years of suppression in the wake of a US-backed military coup in 1980, which brought a right-wing dictatorship to power.

The group's material has often been drawn from centuries old Turkish folk songs, performed on both modern instruments and traditional instruments such as the baglama and ney.

Grup Yorum, like the DHKP-C, is often associated with Turkey's Alevi minority, a cultural and religious sect that follows a highly heterodox strain of Shia Islam.

But 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'.

'We make songs of hopefulness, awareness, and struggle ... this is regarded as very dangerous by the fascists'

- Ihsan Cibelik, band member

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

Though the band has endured heavy scrutiny from successive governments - in 1993, a truckload of copies of their album Cesaret was shot to pieces by Turkish security services while en route to Diyarbakir - the July 2016 coup attempt saw them facing a severe crackdown.

Six members of the band 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 Altın 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.

'Sevda Turkusu' from Grup Yorum's 1993 album Cesaret

The arrests and subsequent hunger strikes provoked an outpouring of support from musicians and left-wing political activists internationally.

In November 2016, following the arrest of a number of band members, folk singer Joan Baez issued a statement of solidarity.

"The fact that you have been put in prison means that your music and your work has touched people, has moved people, that you have given strength and courage, that you have been true to your beliefs," she said.

Politicians from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the left-wing Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) have also expressed support for the band.

On Monday, isolating HDP MPs released a video singing the Grup Yorum song 'Gel ki Safaklar Tutussun' in solidarity with the band:

'Life has won'

Speaking outside Gokcek's house on Tuesday morning following the end of his death fast, Korur Fincanci, chair of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, announced that "life has won".

"We said that their demands were our demands. We have been struggling to create an environment where they can sing their folk songs freely and we will continue this struggle," he said.

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All those assembled, including human rights activists, band members, HDP and CHP members, wore face masks, in light of the coronavirus pandemic which has so far claimed thousands of lives in Turkey.

There are still concerns about the risk the virus poses to the members of Grup Yorum who still remain in prison (including Ibrahim's wife Sultan), as well as the numerous political prisoners in the country.

Cibelik that the last three years had been an existential threat to the band - but he held up hope that their cause would win out eventually.

"For 35 years of our existence we were persecuted and resisted in lot of ways. These persecutions of the last three years targeted our very existence," he said.

"We will see and resist again and again... the people of Anatolia and the democratic powers of the world are with us."