Outrage over denial of amnesty for Turkish political prisoners

Bethan McKernan and Beril Eski in Istanbul
Photograph: Ümit Bektaş/Reuters

Anger is growing in Turkey that while the government is preparing to grant amnesties to up to one third of the country’s prison population in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic, jailed human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians will not be among those considered for early release.

The Turkish parliament passed a legal amendment on Tuesday which makes 90,000 of the country’s approximately 300,000 prisoners eligible for either house arrest or parole by halving sentences for offences including non pre-mediatated murder and organised 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 over 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 organisations joined Turkish groups calling for the immediate release of journalists and other political prisoners such as opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who are currently detained under notorious 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 justice minister Abdulhamit Gül has so far insisted that the pandemic has not reached Turkey’s overcrowded prison system, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) 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 Gergerlioğlu 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,” Gergerlioğlu told the Guardian.

“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.”

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. There are so many prisoners, in fact, that in order to take pressure off a system already at 121% capacity, Ankara is planning to build 100 new prisons.

Idris Sayılgan, a Kurdish journalist, 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 in first Mus and then Trabzon prison could lead to coronavirus killing many in the Turkish system, 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. Low quality food and unsanitary conditions led him to develop gum disease. Prisoners had to buy their own cleaning products.

“We had to pay for everything ourselves: toilet paper, soap, shampoo, bleach for cleaning. We only got two showers a week,” he said. “It is impossible to do social distancing or practise good hygiene in such conditions. If coronavirus spreads in prisons, it will be a massacre.”

Conditions may be about to get worse: recent news articles suggested that prisoners in Turkey are now having to pay 17 lira (£2.09) for their own face masks, and advocacy group Jurists for Freedom said in a report that inmates have complained that not all prison staff are wearing protective masks and gloves. As part of social distancing measures visits from family members have been stopped and lawyers are now only allowed to visit clients with a prosecutor’s permission.

Coronavirus also appears to be exacerbating the Turkish freedom of speech crisis which led to so many getting locked up in the first place. Reporters without Borders said that seven journalists have been arrested for their reporting on the pandemic and charged with “spreading panic”, and 385 people are being investigated for critical social media posts.

During the crisis, the government has also found time to arrest another five HDP mayors in Turkey’s southeast, who are likely to be replaced with unelected pro-government trustees.

“This attitude explicitly displays the government’s intentions: common criminals will be released but the political prisoners will remain behind bars,” said Veysel Ok, co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association, a non-profit legal defence organisation.

“This [decision not to free political prisoners] at this time, in a way, is equivalent to a verdict of death penalty.”