Police equipment in Eruh, south-east Turkey, during a festival marking the 25th anniversary, three years ago, of the start of the Kurdish insurgency. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
While many have hailed Turkey as a democratic role model since the start of the Arab spring, the country’s treatment of its large Kurdish minority begs the question of whether such praise is justified. After months of increasing violence and the ever more hawkish stance of the AKP government, the Kurdish issue seems to have reached an impasse.

Around 690 inmates in prisons across the country are taking part in a hunger strike, which was started on 12 September by 65 prisoners convicted of belonging to the outlawed Kurdish parties, the PKK and PJAK.

According to the Human Rights Association of Turkey (IHD), there have been reports that the hunger strikers have been beaten, isolated and denied vitamin B1, salt and sugar water.

The hunger strikers are demanding Kurdish language rights in education and in court, and an end to the solitary confinement of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is imprisoned on an island.

While the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has recently hinted at the possibility of restarting talks with Öcalan, the AKP has not yet commented on the hunger strike, and pro-government media have ignored the topic.

For Asiye Kolçak, deputy chairwoman of the Istanbul headquarters of the pro-Kurdish BDP, the hunger strikes are the result of a political impasse: “For over 30 years, all possible political means have been exhausted, but without success. The AKP continues its politics of assimilation and denial of Kurdish civil rights.”

According to a Crisis Group Europe report published in September, more than 700 people have died on all sides of the armed struggle in the last 14 months. Many fear that the Kurdish issue has reached a dangerous stalemate. “We are at a dead end,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy chairman of the main opposition party CHP and former president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association.

Citing the decrease in inter-ethnic marriages in Turkey, Tanrikulu fears that the divide between Turks and Kurds might become unbridgeable: “Violence continues unabated, people on both sides keep dying – doesn’t this show that the current strategy is a failure? What we need is reconciliation. Dialogue has to be reopened.”

Koray Çaliskan of the Istanbul Bosporus University believes that the so-called “democratic opening”, an ill-fated attempt at rapprochement launched at the end of 2008, has failed: “This is no opening, but rather democratic closure,” he said. Referring to Erdogan’s repeated public assertions that he would not debate with the BDP in parliament, he said: “The government refuses to talk to legally elected [pro-Kurdish BDP] parliamentarians because of their alleged ties to ‘terrorists’, but says it is ready to talk to convicted terrorists in jail. Where is the logic in that?”

He added that the demands made by hunger strikers were not only reasonable, but legally justifiable: “If an Italian needs to go to court in Turkey, the state is legally required to provide a translator. It should be the same for Kurdish citizens. And what are Kurds supposed to do with elective Kurdish classes? Turks should take those. Kurds already know their native language and simply demand equal education rights,” he added, referring to the country’s constitution, which enforces Turkish as the sole language to be used in schools.

Kolçak said that more than 8,000 BDP politicians and activists were in jail – of whom 4,000 were arrested in 2011 under arbitrary terrorism charges – including MPs and serving Kurdish mayors.

Tanrikulu said: “The AKP made Kurds believe that they would find a solution. But the trust in the government is gone.” He does not believe that the all-party parliamentary committee set up in October 2011 to draft a more democratic constitution will resolve things: “In such violent times and in such a tense atmosphere, it will be hard to find viable compromise. First we need to end this polarisation between all factions.”

Tanrikulu continued: “I do not agree with exploiting human bodies for political activism, but now is not the time to discuss this. Now is the time to end it. The government and the Ministry of Justice have to take the initiative; it’s in their hands to come to an agreement.”

The Turkish Medical Association warns that time is of crucial importance. According to lawyers who visit the hunger strikers, several are now in a critical condition and the Ministry of Justice has refused to grant doctors permission to check on fasting inmates. The ministry was not available for comment.

Turkey has a history of “death fasts”: in 1996, 12 inmates died during hunger strikes protesting against isolation cells in high-security prisons, while a fast against the cells between 2000 and 2007 claimed 122 lives.

“What will happen when the first hunger strikers die in prison now?” Çaliskan asked. “One MP has joined the death fast already. What happens should he die? Which Middle Eastern country will be able to hold up Turkey as an example for democracy then?”