The Justice Ministry has granted special residential permission to a Kurdish asylum-seeker who had been waging a weeklong hunger strike with four fellow Kurds from Turkey at an immigration center in Ibaraki Prefecture, it was leaned Saturday.

Hassan Chikan, who was released from the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku on Friday, is believed to be the first Kurdish asylum-seeker from Turkey to be granted resident status by the Japanese government, according to lawyers supporting immigrants. The ministry does not disclose information on individual cases.

A group of five Kurdish asylum-seekers, including Chikan, have refused all food and drink except water at the detention center from the morning of April 20 to protest the decision to deport them to Turkey.

The remaining four Kurds were continuing their hunger strike as of Friday afternoon, when lawyer Takeshi Ohashi met three of them.

“They were not in such a serious condition that they were unable to walk, but they appear to have lost a considerable amount of weight,” he told The Japan Times. Their applications for refugee status were all dismissed by the ministry by Friday, he added.

A Justice Ministry spokesman refused to discuss the hunger strike and the health of the men, repeating, “We cannot say anything about this case.” Journalists are customarily refused access to detainees at such facilities.

Judging by its past record, Japan has not been tolerant toward Kurds from Turkey who are seeking asylum. Kurds started to settle in Japan, especially in Saitama Prefecture, in 1994 after European countries tightened their immigration policies, experts say.

More than 60 Kurds from Turkey have applied for refugee status in Japan since 1996 but lawyers supporting them said none have so far been recognized as refugees.

Chikan, who first arrived in Japan in the late 1990s, was deported to Turkey in 1999 after the ministry dismissed his application for refugee status. He was then arrested and detained by Turkish authorities and was singled out for harsh treatment, said Ohshi, who visited the country to track down deported refugees he had assisted while in Japan.

Chikan was persecuted by Turkish authorities on the grounds that he supports the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, because he appeared in a photograph with a poster of the party’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in the background, Ohshi said.

Articles in Turkish newspapers claim that Turkish authorities are conducting surveillance operations on Kurdish residents of Saitama Prefecture who are considered to be active PKK members.

Chikan again fled to Japan in February after Turkish soldiers raided his home town of Tekirsin. However, he was detained at the immigration facility in Narita Airport when he again applied for refugee status upon his arrival, according to the lawyer.

It is believed that Chikan was granted special residential status, usually granted to foreigners who marry Japanese, instead of refugee status out of diplomatic consideration toward Turkey, which denies it is persecuting its Kurdish minority.

The remaining four Kurds at the immigration center also claim they face persecution by Turkish authorities if they are deported. Kurds, who comprise about a quarter of the population of Turkey, have long been in conflict with the Turkish government.

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