Turkey’s parliament has approved a bill that releases certain categories of prisoners in an effort to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19. Now thieves and traffickers are out in society, but thousands of journalists, government critics, and prisoners of conscience still suffer in prison with a deadly virus spreading.
The Turkish government’s prisoner release is the right thing in principle, but the actual bill is a human rights travesty. It is a good thing to release part of the prison population to decrease the overcrowded facilities where inmates have to survive inhumane conditions even without an outbreak. But the groups they are leaving in prison are the ones who should be let out.
For years, journalists and political activists have been jailed in Turkey on the charge of supporting terrorism. The counter-terrorism law defined terrorism in such a broad way that even someone who had never engaged in violence or condoned it could be charged with terrorism. Nearly 50,000, or one-fifth of the total prison population in Turkey, are journalists, civil servants, teachers, police officers, military personnel, and politicians charged with such “crimes.”
I am the deputy for HDP, a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey. The co-chairs of my party, along with thousands of Kurdish members of HDP, have been jailed for years now on charges of being members of a terrorist organization.
The European Union has been urging Turkey for years to change this outrageous law and redefine terrorism to exclude journalistic reporting and legitimate democratic dissent.
The Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan completely disregarded these calls, knowing that as long as Turkey hosted a large number of Syrian refugees, the European Union would never take any hard measures against it.
Historically, Turkish prisons have been notorious for the inhumane conditions and various abuses of inmates, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. While they got better during the early 2000s as Turkey made an effort to join the European Union, the last several years saw inhumane conditions and abuses that are hard to describe here. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture all criticized Turkey for reports of widespread and systematic torture, including rape in detention facilities and inhumane conditions in prisons.
Prisoners are physically abused and beaten up on a regular basis. There have been numerous cases of prisoners committing suicide rather than continue to suffer abuses. Nearly 3,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, sometimes for months, despite the fact that the legal limit for solitary confinement is 20 days. In 2018, the government “doubled” the prison capacity of 111,000 to accommodate the tens of thousands of new inmates by adding bunk beds and mattresses on the floor while completely disregarding the hygiene and space needs of the inmates. Currently Turkish prison population of 286,000 ranks as the world’s seventh-largest.
Women comprise 11,000 of the inmates in Turkish prisons. Thousands of them have committed no crimes by any international standard. Their only crime is being affiliated with the wrong group in the eyes of the Erdogan government. Incredibly, 780 babies and children under age 6 are in Turkish prisons with their mothers. We should also not forget the hundreds of severely ill and elderly prisoners of conscience, some of whom are over the age of 70.
As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Helsinki Accords, where the United States is also a signatory, Turkey pledged to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens. As coronavirus cases increase dramatically worldwide (surging past 137,000 in Turkey at latest count) those wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey are about to be punished again for their speech or alleged affiliation.
Now is the time to stop the injustice of jailing journalists, prisoners of conscience, and people who have been categorized as terrorists despite seeking peace and not add yet another form of persecution by leaving them in prisons in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak.
Turkey must amend this new law before it is too late for some of these innocent people rotting in jail.