Anger is growing in Turkey that while the government is preparing to grant amnesties to up to one-third of the nation’s prison population in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, jailed human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians would not be among those considered for early release.
The Turkish parliament on Tuesday discussed a legal amendment which should make 90,000 of the nation’s approximately 300,000 prisoners eligible for either house arrest or parole by halving sentences for offenses including non premeditated murder and organized crime.
Early drafts of the bill, which would also have covered sex offenders and those convicted of gender-based violence, were dropped after being met with outrage from women’s rights groups.
Of perhaps the greatest concern is not who the new law lets out of prison, but who it keeps in. While rights groups have welcomed some of the new measures to keep inmates safe from coronavirus, such as alternative incarceration or home arrest for those older than 65, those with pre-existing conditions and female prisoners with young children, political prisoners have been very clearly overlooked.
On Monday, Amnesty International, along with two dozen human rights organizations, joined Turkish groups calling for the immediate release of journalists and other political prisoners, such as opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who are detained under anti-terrorism legislation and are therefore not eligible under the new terms.
Despite enacting a near total shutdown to fight COVID-19, Turkey’s number of confirmed cases has skyrocketed from 1,872 a week ago to 13,531 on Tuesday.
While Turkish Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul has insisted that the pandemic has not reached the nation’s overcrowded prison system, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party politician and former doctor, checked with hospitals to confirm that at least one patient who tested positive had been transferred for treatment from Ankara’s Sincan prison.
Ankara’s public prosecutor accused Gergerlioglu of “provoking anxiety, fear and panic among the public” and said an investigation had been launched.
“We have been campaigning to improve the standards in prisons for a long time,” Gergerlioglu said.
“There are already many violations in terms of healthcare access, staffing levels, contagious disease, people dying from lack of treatment for their illnesses. I have submitted many questions to parliament about these cases ... Our justice system is broken,” he said.
In recent years, Turkey has arrested thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists, civil servants and members of the military it says were part of the outlawed Gulenist movement, which it blames for a failed coup in 2016, as well as Kurdish activists and politicians the state claims have links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). Many languish in lengthy pre-trial detention.
Kurdish journalist Idris Sayilgan was convicted on terrorism charges after a trial in which the only evidence presented against him were his articles.
He spent more than three years in jail before being released in November last year.
The overcrowded cells and filthy conditions he experienced first in Mus and then Trabzon prison could lead to COVID-19 killing many inmates, the 29-year-old said.
“At Mus prison I shared a cell seven steps long with 14 other people. Some cells had even more people than that. There was only one bathroom for all of us,” he said.
In Trabzon, cells were still overcrowded: Sayilgan’s cell was only meant for four people, but housed eight, so two people had to sleep on the floor.
“It is impossible to do social distancing or practice good hygiene in such conditions. If coronavirus spreads in prisons, it will be a massacre,” he said.
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