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Long Hunger Strike In Turkey Speeds Prison Reforms

Amid growing concerns in Western nations, a 71-day hunger strike, in which 12 leftist Turkish prison inmates have died and another 150 were hospitalized, ended Sunday.

In the aftermath, Turkey's oft-criticized human rights record, has taken another blow. But the new pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan may have emerged unscathed from a situation it did not create.

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The prison protesters, numbering more than 2,000 and being held in 43 jails across the country, were mainly being held on terrorism charges. According to the human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International, the prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of transporting inmates to prisons far from their home provinces and for improvements in their treatment while being transported.

Before it was resolved, the hunger strike brought several letters of concern from Western nations displeased at what they say was a continuation of Turkey's well-documented record of human rights abuses, which includes police beating and harsh prison conditions.

European Commissioner Hans van den Broek issued a reminder to Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller, a former prime minister, of her government's promise to improve its human rights record in exchange for a customs union deal with the European Union that was concluded seven months ago.

Unfortunate inheritance

Still, many officials said they see the situation as a bit ironic, since the present government had been working on a prison-reform program and had only inherited the strike from the previous government, in which Mrs. Ciller was a partner.

"If the situation had continued a little longer, the reputation of the Turkish government would have been severely damaged," says one official at the British Embassy. "They did the best they could in a very difficult situation [that was] inherited, but not created by their government."

US Embassy officials say the government of Mr. Erbakan - who became prime minister last month - has already made moves to improve prison conditions.

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"We do know that the new government had already begun a wide-range investigation of Turkish prison policy," says Margaret Schmitt, a spokesperson at the US Embassy in Ankara. "We believe those to be very positive steps forward."

Many Western officials and humanitarian organizations say they were impressed with the efforts of Zulfu Livanelly, a Turkish activist and journalist who is credited with negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis.

'The situation was terrible'

"The situation was terrible, especially as it concerns our human rights and relations abroad," Mr. Livanelly said in an interview. "But I think that in the end the situation will work to the advantage of Mr. Erbakan - after all, it was he who agreed to a peaceful end."

On Friday Livanelly tried to negotiate an end to the strike in talks with Justice Minister Sevket Kazan, but found no resolution to the prisoners' grievances. On Saturday he spoke with officials in contact with Erbakan, who agreed to listen to inmate demands in exchange for evacuation and hospitalization of some of those near death.

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