ANKARA   -  A Turkish court on Thursday ordered two teachers who have been on hunger strike for six months to protest their sacking in a mass purge to stay in jail, despite growing alarm among supporters over their health. 

The case of Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca, who have been jailed since May, has become a rallying cause for critics of the crackdown that followed a failed coup in July 2016 that sought to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither Gulmen, an academic, nor Ozakca, a former primary school teacher, were present as their trial on “terror” charges 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. The pair were arrested in May on charges of belonging to the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, an outlawed group that has carried out sporadic attacks in recent years and has a fiercely anti-Western agenda. 

Their lawyers urged the court to release them but the judge ruled they would remain in custody, a lawyer from the defence team told AFP. 

The trial was adjourned to September 28, with the next hearing to take place in Sincan near Ankara where the pair are being held, defence lawyer Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu told AFP. 

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

Before the trial started, lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gathered outside the courthouse to make statements in support of the pair, backed by dozens of supporters. 

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

Police intervened to stop them, later using tear gas to roughly disperse supporters shouting: “Nuriye and Semih are not alone!” 

Two dozens protesters were arrested and an AFP correspondent saw police dragging several of them away, their shirts ripped. 

Gulmen and Ozakca are just two of more than 140,000 public sector employees 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 then began a hunger strike on March 9. 

They were arrested two months later and charged with belonging to “an armed terrorist organisation” and “making the propaganda” for it, the indictment shows. 

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, accusing them of attending “unlawful” gatherings and demonstrations, and creating “terrorist” propaganda. 

And just two days before the trial, at least 15 lawyers from the Office of People’s Rights (HHB), which is representing the pair, were detained on “terror” charges, creating further tensions. 

Around 150 lawyers turned up on Thursday to show their support, but the courtroom was so full that many were unable to enter. 

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 would 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 whom 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.