COVID-19 will spread ‘like a forest fire’ in Turkish jails - Ahmet Altan

Turkish political prisoners excluded from a recent prison amnesty have expressed fears over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in jail, The National said.

"If the virus enters prison, it will spread there like a forest fire,” writer and journalist Ahmet Altan told The National in a written message.

Turkey's parliament passed a law on Tuesday granting an amnesty to around 90,000 out of  300,000 prisoners to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country’s overcrowded jails. 

But while the law excludes those convicted of sex crimes and drug trafficking, it does not apply to those jailed on terrorism charges, who include many journalists, politicians, activists and others imprisoned for what they have said or written, rather than acts of violence.

Critics say Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws are overly vague and frequently used to crack down on dissent. Tens of thousands of political prisoners have been incarcerated since a failed 2016 military coup, most of them on terrorism charges.

Altan, a well-known critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was given a life sentence in February 2018 on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, interfering with the work of the national assembly, and interfering with the work of the government through violence or force. Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life sentence and he was released from prison late last year. 

A week later, he was returned to prison on another terrorism charge.

At 70-years-old, Altan is in a high-risk group from the coronavirus, and his family told The National that he was deeply worried about the threat to his health. 

Altan’s family have been prohibited from seeing him under regulations to contain the spread of the coronavirus. His brother Mehmet Altan, a journalist and economics professor who was also previously jailed on similar charges but released in June 2018, told The National he talks to his brother by phone for 10 minutes per week.

On March 23, Mehmet Yeter, 70, became the first person known to have died from the coronavirus in a Turkish prison. He was serving a three-year sentence for drug trafficking.

A lawyer for imprisoned businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala told The National that visits to his client had become very difficult due to the coronavirus and that relatives had decided to reduce the frequency of their visits.