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As Strategy Gains In Popularity, Hunger Strikers Broaden Their Scope

Bibigul Bektursynova, an education worker, conducts a hunger strike in Kazakhstan
Bibigul Bektursynova, an education worker, conducts a hunger strike in Kazakhstan
Some take it in shifts. Others start one, only to give it up in a day or two. Still others say they'll continue until death.

Going on a hunger strike is the protest of choice by people ranging from jailed Iranian filmmakers to Azerbaijani journalists to Russian mothers. But such strikes come in a greater variety than you might expect.

A group of Azerbaijani journalists recently held a one-day "symbolic hunger strike" in Baku in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev.

Ganimat Zahid, the editor of independent newspaper "Azadliq," told RFE/RL that while he knew such a short fast would not be enough to free Fatullayev, he and the other journalists saw it as a way to draw attention to the cause.

The group of 20-odd journalists spent April 21 fasting individually in their own offices. Zahid said he fasted for a full 24 hours -- adding, with a laugh, that he assumed that the others did the same.

They were joined by protesters in London and Paris who gathered outside of their local Azerbaijani embassies.

"Essentially, it was a symbolic, supportive event. We are also aware that we will not get real results with the one-day hunger strike. If hunger strikes with political demands continue for 10 to15 days, they can have some public attention in our country," Zahid said.

Zahid said, however, that there was no result to his 2006 hunger strike, a 17-day fast staged in an attempt to stop the government from taking over his newspaper's offices. His strike ended when he fell into a coma, and authorities stuck to their decision to claim the office space and move "Azadliq" to another building, which he said was cramped and inconveniently located.

Old Tactic

The best-known hunger strikers include the likes of imprisoned Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, who fasted to death in 1981, along with nine other prisoners, on his 66th day without food. Mahatma Gandhi, American suffragettes, Turkish political prisoners in the 1980s and more recently, imprisoned Cuban dissidents have all used lengthy hunger strikes to win public attention.

But such hardcore hunger strikes are on the downturn, with more people turning to less intense fasts in an attempt to enact change, according to Hernan Reyes, an expert on hunger strikes who works on issues of prisoner health for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Reyes, who is currently based in China, said the basic difference between hunger strikers and food refusers is that the former are fasting as a last resort, and have made clear that they are willing to go all the way -- possibly even die -- for their cause.

Food refusers, on the other hand, range from prisoners who refuse to eat for a day or two because they're angry over something trivial, such as a cell change, to those who may fast for weeks for a cause, but from the get-go are not ultimately willing to risk their long-term health.
Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands died in 1981 after 66 days of hunger strike

"[Food refusers] haven't the slightest intention of hurting themselves. They do skip a few meals, they might even skip a whole week of meals, but their intent is to indeed make a nuisance of themselves, make as much mess as they can, get the media by all means in on it, get people outside making noise, give the prison director a bad name," Reyes said. "But they haven't the slightest intention of going the way Bobby Sands did."

Some fasters set a deadline for when their strikes will end -- such as a group of Russian mothers who went on a three-day hunger strike in mid-April to protest against the state of kindergartens. They said that if their demands were not met, they would start the strike again on May 4. But they are not reported to have done so.

And finally there is the category of symbolic, or rotational, fasting, which Reyes said is on the increase as people see that public attention can be called to their plight with minimal sacrifice.

"We have hundreds of these cases.... You can have: 'I skip breakfast, you skip lunch, your colleague skips this…we start shooting our mouths off, we're on a hunger strike!' Well that’s baloney, that's not a hunger strike," Reyes said.

'Chain Fast'

Some 36,000 Americans, galvanized by former U.S. Ambassador Tony Hall and musical artist Moby went on a 28-day chain "fast" last month to protest against proposed Republican budget cuts.

While Hall actually did not eat for 28 days -- although he did drink juice in addition to water -- the 36,000 "fasters" supporting him were given three options when they signed up online: they could pray once a week for those hurt by the budget cuts, choose to limit food consumption to $2 each day, or do an actual "fast" by skipping a meal every day, abstaining from solid food once a week or living on liquids only.

For the most desperate, however, hardcore hunger strikes are still a viable last resort -- and, occasionally, they even get the job done. On March 25 thousands of inmates in jails across Kyrgyzstan went on strike to protest their living conditions. The strike went on for five days before a commission of representatives from government and nongovernmental organizations began visiting penitentiaries to outline recommendations for reforms.

And the wife of jailed Iranian filmmaker and writer Mohammad Nourizad told RFE/RL that her husband has been on a hunger strike for more than 40 days. He is fasting in protest against the prosecutor and judiciary which he says has been ignoring complaints that interrogators had attacked him and that a judge had verbally abused his family.

Wife Fateme Maleki said there has been no reaction from the government yet, and she is worried for his health, as previous to the fast he already suffered from problems with his kidneys, skin, and teeth.

"Unfortunately there has been no reaction. There have been no calls, nothing. And even if there was a reaction, we don't know about it. Me and my family, we are very worried that he's not eating, especially with how it can affect his health," Maleki said.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Mohammad Reza Kazemi contributed to this report

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