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Trial opens of sacked Turkey teachers on hunger strike

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Ankara (AFP)

Two imprisoned Turkish teachers who have been on a hunger strike for six months to protest their sacking in a mass purge went on trial on Thursday charged with terror-related offences.

The case of academic Nuriye Gulmen and teacher Semih Ozakca, jailed since May, has become a rallying cause for critics of the crackdown that followed the July 15 failed coup aimed at ousting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In May, they were arrested on charges of membership of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), an outlawed group that has carried out sporadic attacks in the last years and has a fiercely anti-Western agenda.

Neither was present as the first hearing got under way in Ankara.

The defence said the authorities had cited health and security grounds for not bringing them to court, AFP correspondents said.

Chaotic scenes unfolded outside the courtroom as dozens of people battled to find space in the cramped hall, with police using riot shields and batons to restore order.

Before the trial began, lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) were joined by dozens of supporters to make statements in defence of the pair.

"We will destroy this oppressive regime. Without democracy and freedom, nothing will be possible in this country," CHP MP Mahmut Tanal vowed.

Police officers intervened to stop the declaration and later used tear gas to disperse supporters who shouted shouting "Nuriye and Semih are not alone".

Two dozen protesters were detained in front of the courthouse, local media said.

- 'Terror propaganda' -

Gulmen and Ozakca are among over 140,000 people working in the public sector who have been suspended or sacked under the state of emergency imposed after last year's attempted putsch.

After their dismissal in late 2016, they protested daily in central Ankara and began their hunger strike on March 9.

Gulmen and Ozakca vehemently deny the charges, with supporters saying they were targeted because of their protest and hunger strike.

But the government insists they have a history of militant behaviour including "propaganda for an armed terrorist organisation".

Supporters want the pair to be released but the prosecutor asked the judge to keep them imprisoned, a lawyer for the defence told AFP.

Adding to alarm over the trial, at least 15 lawyers from the Office of People's Rights (HHB) representing the pair were themselves detained on "terror" charges on Tuesday.

Dozens of lawyers came in support for the hearing. But the courtroom was so full that many were unable to enter.

- 'Not well' -

The pair are only consuming salted or sugared water, herbal teas and vitamin B1, and family members and supporters have expressed concerns over their health.

Beyza Gulmen, Nuriye's sister, told Hurriyet daily her sister was "not well".

"Her legs, neck and shoulders hurt. She has heart rhythm issues. She cannot walk now. She is sensitive to light," the sister added, quoted on Wednesday.

Ozakca's mother Sultan Ozakca said her son had difficulties walking -- experiencing similar issues as Gulmen -- but also had a "slow pulse" and "intense stomach pain".

"They try to make us believe they take care of Nuriye and Semih in jail. But actually they are afraid we could see them as they really are," supporter Yasemin Barlas said outside the court.

After the failed coup, authorities sacked prosecutors, civil servants, judges and academics, accusing them of links to Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara claims ordered the putsch -- something he vehemently denies.

But critics say the crackdown has gone well beyond the alleged plotters to include anyone who dares oppose Erdogan.

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