PEN America mourns the death of Turkish singer Helin Bölek, who died Friday after a nearly 300-day hunger strike. She was a member of the music collective Grup Yorum, which has faced ongoing persecution by the Turkish government for years. Bölek had been on a hunger strike to protest her imprisonment and that of eight other band members during 2019.
Although Bölek was released on November 20, she continued her hunger strike with the intent to pursue it until her own death, alongside Grup Yorum member İbrahim Gökçek, both of whom were hospitalized against their wishes in March.
Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America, said the following:
“We are immensely saddened to learn of Helin Bölek’s passing. We strongly condemn the actions of the Turkish government that led to her death. Bölek was on a death fast because the Turkish authorities refused to guarantee this artistic group several of the most basic liberties necessary to a free and democratic society: that Grup Yorum be allowed to make music in peace, that their cultural center not be raided again and again, that their concerts not be banned, and that their members not be imprisoned for merely making music. Artists take risks, but they should not have to risk their lives. Turkish authorities’ hostile attitude toward freedom of expression and their continued crackdown on artists, writers, thinkers, and activists, especially those working on Kurdish issues, must cease immediately, and Grup Yorum members still in prison must be unconditionally released. Bölek’s death makes the truth painfully clear: The very lives of artists are on the line.”
Grup Yorum is a folk collective with a rotating membership. The group has been prohibited from performing in Turkey since 2016, and authorities have jailed some of its members.
The government accuses Grup Yorum of links to the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, or DHKP/C. The militant group is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Bolek and a fellow band member, Ibrahim Gokcek, had embarked on the hunger strike while in prison to press the government to lift the ban and free detained band members.