Families of Turkey’s political prisoners fear coronavirus impact

The families of political prisoners, especially those in poor health, are worried for the safety of their jailed loved ones after Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said on Friday all family visits would be suspended for the next two weeks in an effort to contain coronavirus infections.

The ministry also said the temperature of everybody who enters or leaves prison would be checked. Requests by family members for permission to have extended phone calls or ‘closed visits’ - in which there is no physical contact between prisoner and visitor – seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Evin Kışanak, the daughter of well-known Kurdish politician Gültan Kışanak, said she was in shock when she heard she could not visit her mother on Sunday, as she does every week. Gültan Kışanak, the former co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) - the predecessor of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - has been in prison since November 2016.

“I understand that the authorities want to take measures to keep the virus outside the prisons, but I haven’t been able to talk to [my mother] and the rules for phone calls with family have not been extended,” said Evin Kışanak.

Çağlar Demirel, a former HDP member of parliament for Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, has been jailed since late 2016 and is held in the same prison as Gültan Kışanak, close to Istanbul. Her brother, Sertaç Demirel, is glad he visited his sister with his elderly parents a week ago as his next weekly visit has been cancelled.

“We live in Diyarbakır and we bought plane tickets for this weekend’s visit already. Why can’t they allow closed visits?” Sertaç Demirel asked.

He said he understood it was crucial to take measures to prevent the virus entering the prison, said he had heard alarming accounts of the hygienic situation inside. “Recently two inmates were released from the same jail and they said the cells are not sanitised well enough,” he said.

Berivan Korkut is working for Civil Society in the Penal System Association (CISST), an organisation that aims to protect the rights of prisoners in Turkey. She said that there had been no coronavirus-related health problems in the prisons.

“No prisoners have complained to us that, for example, they feel sick, but don’t get tested. It can be that the disease hasn’t reached the prison cells yet. Let’s hope that’s the case,” she said.

To keep it that way, CISST has called on the authorities to take several extra health and hygiene measures in the prisons; for example, distributing cleaning materials and items for personal hygiene free of charge and to disinfect shared spaces like toilets and bathrooms every day. “To strengthen the health of inmates, we have also asked the prison authorities to provide inmates with extra nutrition and vitamins,” said Korkut.

But CISST has some demands for visitor rights as well. “The rights to make phone calls should be extended”, said Korkut. “People must be able to make half-an-hour phone calls now without charge. Closed visits should be allowed as soon as possible. With the right precautions, open visits must also be resumed again.”

Korkut has no idea yet how the authorities will react to the demands. “This is all very fresh, we have to wait for their reaction,” she said. But CISST is concerned that the current measures will be extended for a longer period.

“At the moment, the prisons had to take strong measures, but these measures should not continue and turn into rights violations,” said Korkut.

This is exactly what Sertaç Demirel is afraid of. “For now, the visit ban is for two weeks, but I worry that it may eventually last for months. This will mean isolation, especially for people in F-type prisons,” he said, referring to high security facilities where inmates often stay in a cell alone, or with a maximum of three people. Many of the political prisoners stay in such prisons as they have been convicted of terrorism charges.

Demirel questions whether the government is really worried about the health of those in prison. “People who are imprisoned for political reasons, like my sister and thousands of others, should be released. But with the problematic hygiene situation in prisons, those who committed crimes should also be released and could be put under house arrest,” he argued.

But Demirel, Kışanak, and CISST all agree that the first prisoners to be released, now that the coronavirus may enter the prison system, should be those with medical conditions. They are, after all, the most likely to suffer serious consequences from an infection from the coronavirus. Berivan Korkut of CISST referred to a law that gives sick prisoners the right to be treated outside prison.

“The applications of seriously ill prisoners should be speeded up so they can be treated and recover outside prison,” said Korkut.

However, authorities do not have a history of granting seriously ill prisoners the right to treatment in hospitals outside prisons and it remains to be seen if the current circumstances will change that.

Evin Kışanak’s mother and Sertaç Demirel’s sister are not seriously ill, but both do have medical conditions. Çağlar Demirel had a thyroid operation last year and takes medication for high blood pressure. Gültan Kışanak has kidney problems, which makes her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“My mother doesn’t like to talk about it because she is okay and there are many prisoners in a much more serious condition,” said Evin Kışanak. “Also, when I visit she always says she is fine. But of course, now that I can’t see her, I worry more.”

HDP member of parliament Nuran İmir, meanwhile, called on Twitter for the state to take action. “Don’t let the state add negligence in the prisons to this world’s epidemic,” she said. “The state will be responsible for every loss of life that results from this.”


© 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.