Coronavirus means many prisoners in Turkey must be released now

Prison reform was already on the government’s agenda over last few months, but the risk from the coronavirus has now made it an urgent priority. Turkish lawmakers have rushed to draft legislation that could release approximately one third of the 300,000 inmates currently being held in Turkish prisons.

When prison guards and gendarmerie personnel - which number approximately 150,000 in prisons - are taken in account, we are talking about 450,000 lives at clear and imminent risk of mass infection in prison facilities.

Prisons in Turkey are severely overcrowded, currently operating at almost 136% of capacity, and EU Commission’s 2018 report on Turkey stated that: “Overcrowding and deteriorating prison conditions continued to be a source of deep concern”. But recent measures to free up some prison cells for coronavirus quarantining have meant that, in many prisons, overcrowding is even worse than ever, with 45 people being held in cells designed to hold just seven.

The Justice Ministry has cancelled open and closed visits in all prisons throughout Turkey in response to the coronavirus outbreak. However, prison guards remain in contact with the outside world; increasing the risk of spreading the virus, especially under current crowded conditions.

Pregnant women and mothers with babies in Turkish prisons are extremely vulnerable in such conditions. Turkish prisons do not have separate mother and children units, and there are at least 780 babies children in Turkish prisons. The early release of many of these mothers is already an obligation for the government under United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners, which state that “non-custodial sentences for pregnant women and women with dependent children shall be preferred where possible and appropriate.”

For the women who are pregnant or gave birth in last six months, their prison sentences must be suspended even under current Turkish legislation, namely, Article 16-4 of Law 5275.

Prisoners with serious serious medical conditions are one of the groups most at risk by the outbreak. Under existing Turkish legislation - Article 16-2 of Law 5275 – severely ill prisoners should have their sentences suspended.

Then there is the issue of prisoners facing terrorism charges, who are likely to be exempt from the releases.

Over 20 percent of Turkish prisoners are accused of terrorism-related crimes. But these numbers include many facing bogus terror charges and politicised trials; including journalists, writers, academics, lawyers, judges, human rights defenders, and dismissed public officials and mayors.

Many of these arrests - such as those of philanthropist Osman Kavala and journalists such as Mehmet Altan - have been widely criticised by international human rights bodies and organisations. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has demanded the release of Selahattin Demirtaş, a former leader of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been held since 2016 accused of spreading propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The ECHR ruled that the extensions to Demirtaş’s detention throughout two crucial elections had been designed to stifle pluralism and limit political debate.

Human Rights Watch’s Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb said in a tweet that the plans to release prisoners but to exempt terror suspects from this is “highly problematic in the Turkish context” as “many inmates face sham trials.”

In a statement released this week, 33 bar associations in Turkey called on the government to release prisoners due to the coronavirus, and said that prison sentences should be suspended or could be served under house arrest to reduce the prison population. The statement pointed out that thousands of prisoners have been released to prevent the spread of the virus in Iran and similar measures are being taken by other countries. It also noted that ending widespread pre-trial detention - often for months or even years - in Turkey has become even more urgent, and said that hygiene and healthcare facilities are inadequate in Turkish prisons.

It was reported that prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes and sexual crimes could also be exempted from any prisoner release. But as a founding member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is obliged to “safeguard the health of all prisoners” without discrimination. Wider use of probation with electronic handcuffs could strike a balance between the duty to protect public health and security, with upholding prisoner rights.

On March 20 The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a statement on prisoners in the context of the coronavirus.

It urged all member states – which includes Turkey – to make all efforts to “resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty…in particular, in situations of overcrowding. Further, authorities should make greater use of alternatives to pre-trial detention; commutation of sentences, early release and probation.”sentences.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.