On Tuesday, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with the support of the allied opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), submitted a draft bill to the Turkish parliament to address prison overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic. If it’s approved, Turkey will either temporarily or permanently release up to 90,000 inmates.
Human rights advocates say that while it is necessary to look for ways to reduce the prison population in the middle of the pandemic, this decision comes within the existing political and legal context in Turkey, which allows the government to use its anti-terrorism laws arbitrarily to target political dissents.
“In Turkey’s case, that means a set of anti-terrorism laws that are very broad, very arbitrarily applied and very much abused against the society as a whole, and particularly against certain groups that are targeted,” Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, told VOA.
Schenkkan said that “there are tens of thousands of people in prison under these statutes who frankly have not had any demonstrated connection to actual terrorist activity. And to leave them in prison is to increase the risk for people who are held on essentially political charges.”
Turkey has recorded 15,679 confirmed coronavirus cases with 277 deaths, the Ministry of Health said Wednesday. The country’s prisons, holding nearly 300,000 people, are deemed by activists to be overcrowded and unsanitary, making them increasingly vulnerable to the contagious virus.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said on March 20 that there were no coronavirus cases in prisons, maintaining that “convicts and detainees are entrusted to the state.”
However, local outlets reported Tuesday that a dismissed mayor from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Nalan Ozaydin, had been released from prison after testing positive.
According to Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of Gultan Kisanak, an imprisoned Kurdish politician and former mayor of Diyarbakir, the Turkish Ministry of Justice as early as March 11 had banned all visits into prisons to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I cannot see my mother,” Kisanak said, adding that her mother had told her that “the prison has not provided them with any hygiene products or sanitizers. The ward has not been sanitized and there are mice everywhere.”
The 70-article penal reform bill is expected to be discussed in the Turkish parliament next week. With the AKP and MHP holding a majority, the bill is assured to pass.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Cahit Ozkan, the deputy parliamentary group leader for the AKP, said the draft bill would exclude those charged with sexual offenses, violence against women, drug-related crimes, deliberate killing and terror crimes.
Rights groups say if the proposed bill is passed without amendment, it would exclude journalists, Kurdish politicians, human rights activists and people punished for association with the Gulen movement, a spiritual-political movement inspired by Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in the United States since 1999.
Among the most high-profile prisoners is Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurdish politician and former co-leader of the HDP. He is particularly at risk of the virus because of his deteriorating health, according to his lawyer, Ramazan Demir.
Demirtas’ wife, Basak Demirtas, said in a video on Twitter that “we all need to speak out before it is too late to prevent deaths in prisons.”
On Monday, over two dozen rights groups, including Amnesty International, Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists, issued a joint statement calling on Turkish authorities to also include in the bill journalists, human rights activists and others “imprisoned for simply exercising their rights.” The statement said authorities needed to particularly address risks to those held in long pretrial detentions in the country.
“There are many people in this circumstance whom the authorities should think about again, and people should be released if they haven’t been convicted of any offense,” Andrew Gardner, a senior Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, told VOA.
Gardner said that pretrial detention in the country was used as a “de facto punishment” in which people are held for months or even years before their trials begin. Many of them were arrested following the 2016 failed coup attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to Sezgin Tanrıkulu, an Istanbul deputy of the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a human rights lawyer, Turkey lacks a set of rules separating “political crimes” from terrorism. The ambiguity, he argued, paves the way for the government to use terror laws to crack down on political dissidents.
“If you speak up about any subject that the government disapproves of or if you are involved in any political action that the government does not align with, it is possible that you would be linked with a terrorist organization and get punished,” Tanrıkulu told VOA.
“There are thousands of people who are being tried under anti-terrorism laws. Excluding them from an early release creates damage that cannot be explained by the criminal justice system and public conscience,” he added.
VOA Kurdish Service’s Ruken Isik contributed to this report from Washington.