LONDON—As Turkey roils from a major spike in recorded cases of COVID-19, legal advocates are renewing calls for the release of political prisoners especially vulnerable to the outbreak.
Turkey is currently mulling legislation that would free as many as 100,000 of its 300,000 prisoners to avoid the spread of the virus in prisons. But lawyers say the potential amnesty excludes thousands of political prisoners, who are particularly at risk.
Campaigners are calling the exemption “discriminatory,” and said that “unhealthy prison conditions in the country and the overcrowding in prison facilities” pose a serious risk that is being overlooked for political purposes.
“Approximately 300.000 political prisoners with serious medical conditions are most at risk of the outbreak. This group will not take any advantage of the reform,” lawyer Murat Arksak told Rudaw English.
Among those jailed is charismatic politician Selahattin Demirtas, who was head of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) until he was imprisoned and charged with terrorism. The human rights lawyer, who played a key role during peace negotiations aimed at ending the decades-long conflict between Turkey and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) until talks broke down in the summer of 2015.
For many in Turkey, Demirtas represents a voice advocating peace and tolerance in a divisive political climate. For others, however, the party he leads is but another face of the outlawed PKK, which has fought the Turkish state through decades of bloody conflict .
Demirtas, 47, was arrested in November 2016 after he gave a speech calling on Kurds in Turkey to protest against developments in Kobane, and was subsequently labeled a “terrorist.”
Demirtas reportedly fell unconscious in jail in December last year due to chest pains and respiratory issues. His sister, Aygul Demirtas, told Rudaw English that since the pandemic outbreak began in Turkey, she has not been able to visit her jailed brother. “The conditions of the prisons are not normal even for a very healthy person,” she said.
Though authorities have suspended all outside visitors to the prison where her brother is being held, she says she is still concerned about his safety because the guards coming in and out change shifts three times per day. “The government is responsible for thousands of inmates’ lives,” Ms. Demirtas told Rudaw English.
Arksak, who represents Mr. Demirtas, says that the new bill aimed at releasing inmates due to coronavirus will not benefit his client because it does not apply to those jailed on terror-related offenses.
“Basically, it means the Turkish government will not release Demirtas and other Kurdish politicians due to the terrorism related crimes,” Arksak told Rudaw English. Following a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Turkish state apparatus underwent a sweeping purge against opponents. Journalists, lawyers, intellectuals accused of links to what Turkey considers terrorist organizations were exiled, removed from their jobs, or filled jailed cells in Turkey.
Now, advocates see a serious risk from overcrowding due to the number of inmates rising beyond the capacity that prisons were built to house.
“Turkey’s prisons can only contain 200,000 inmates, but we are aware that currently there are some 300.000 persons imprisoned,” Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV) told Rudaw English. Because inmates are held in common wards, infection could spread quickly among inmates if it is brought in by guards who live off-site or visitors from outside.
“Some wards which are allocated for 8 people are being shared with over 20 or 30 persons, unfortunately. The risk of infection is very dangerous,” Fincanci said.
Turkey’s Health Minister on Thursday urged citizens to follow disease prevention and social distancing measures, as the country expanded testing.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, the director of Turkey’s Human Rights Watch (HRW), last Monday called for the release of prisoners regardless of their political affiliation as coronavirus could potentially spread in prisons.
“All efforts to reduce the prison population at this time are welcome, but such measures cannot become a tool for targeting political prisoners. It should make sure that decisions on early release of all prisoners are non-discriminatory – taking into consideration the imperative of protecting their health, particularly where there are risks due to age or underlying medical conditions.” Said Emma in the statement
Human rights campaigners propose that prison sentences be halted or spent under house arrest to decrease the prison population. Badly devastated by the pandemic, Turkey’s neighbor Iran has granted temporary amnesty to thousands of prisoners – including political detainees – so that they could be quarantines separately in their homes.
On Wednesday, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a deputy of Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in the parliament claimed on Twitter that a 70-year-old man in Ankara’s Sincan Prison was infected with coronavirus.
Authorities have said they have not registered any cases of COVID-19 in any of the country’s prisons.