Coronavirus could make terror charges a death sentence for Turkish prisoners

Last Saturday, Turkish Parliament’s Subcommittee on Justice completed work on the bill to release approximately 90,000 inmates out of 300,000 currently held in Turkish prisons. 

Not surprisingly, the bill excludes more than 50,000 people currently imprisoned on terror charges. In times when even the Iranian regime has not discriminated among its inmates, temporarily releasing 85,000 and pardoning 10,000 political prisoners due to the COVID-19 risk, this bill has the potential to become a de facto death sentence for all who remain in prison.

This would be a tragedy in any case, but it would be even more painful given that, thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tight control of the judiciary and broad definition of terror, almost any dissident can be labelled as a terrorist and placed behind bars.

We all hope such a catastrophe does not take place. But if it does, one could well argue that it is Erdoğan’s government, and not the COVID-19 virus, that is responsible for prisoners’ deaths.

The government cannot plead ignorance of the risks. It has been warned about the dangers of leaving political prisoners behind bars by the United Nations, the Council of Europe (CoE)’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and its
Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs, the European Parliament and the European associations of judges, along with leading international human rights organisations.

The discriminatory nature of the bill is not the only matter worthy of discussion. After years of polarising discourse from Erdoğan, the perception of terror is now a significant problem in Turkey, as highlighted by numerous international bodies.

As the CoE’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic confirms, “laws with an overly broad definition of terrorism and the judiciary’s tendency to stretch them even further is not a new problem in Turkey … this problem has reached unprecedented levels in recent times.” 

This new era of repression started after the government was rocked by nationwide protests in 2013, followed by graft probes targeting its ministers later that year. But the use of terror charges against political opponents has its roots even earlier in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s reign, when prosecutors targeted thousands of secularist military officers they said were members of “Ergenekon,” an alleged clandestine organisation bent on overthrowing the government.

The convictions in Ergenekon and other trials targeting secularists were later overturned after the AKP’s alliance broke down with the Gülen religious group, which is widely thought to have run the trials through its cadres in the judiciary and police force.

The government blames the Gülenists for those trials, and in a twist of fate it was their organisation that would be declared a terrorist organisation in 2016. But while Ergenekon was still in process, Erdoğan declared himself to be the trials’ chief prosecutor, and he was the main beneficiary as the investigations curbed the army’s powers and consolidated his control over the whole state apparatus.

Now, having augmented his powers in a two-year state of emergency after the failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan is not only the prosecutor, but also the sole and unquestionable judge of all high-profile cases.

The government says the hundreds of thousands of people hit with legal action under the state of emergency were members of or linked to the Gülen movement, which the AKP blames for the attempted putsch. While many in Turkey welcomed the action against the movement, rights groups, along with international bodies like the U.N., EU and Council of Europe, say Erdoğan used the emergency powers to target dissidents and ideological opponents across the board. 

Eventually, having put more than 3,000 judges and prosecutors in jail immediately following the July 2016 coup attempt, the government set about detaining more than 500,000 people accused of making propaganda for, being a member of, or aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation under the infamous Anti-Terror Law and Penal Code. 

As Nacho Sánchez Amor, the Turkey Rapporteur for the European Parliament, said, “if you call everyone as terrorist, maybe nobody is a terrorist." 

Leading figures who have been hit with terror charges after 2016 include Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the former co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, Ahmet Altan, a leading liberal journalist, and Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist accused of espionage after being acquitted of trying to overthrow the government. 

Along with these renowned names, around 300,000 people were arrested on the pretext of terror charges. One of them,
Helin Bölek, a member of the left-wing band Grup Yorum, died last week on the 288th day of a hunger strike that she started while imprisoned to protest the ban and persecution of her band. 

Bölek, too, was seen as a terrorist. So are hundreds of thousands of others from different political or social backgrounds. Then there are the nearly 800 mothers held behind bars with their babies, many of whom are excluded from the bill as they too are deemed to be “terrorists”. 

Actually, keeping these people in jail while releasing other criminals has been on the agenda of the AKP and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party allies for years. Should the bill be enacted as it is, the government will have proven its intent to turn this coronavirus threat into an opportunity. By doing so, Erdogan will also have the chance to use the release of other inmates as an investment for the next elections, due in 2023.

It is still not too late to correct such a big mistake through a parliamentary vote, so it is worth reminding lawmakers once again that the current legislation and implementation regarding terror offences has been strongly criticised and found to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in the European Court of Human Rights’s renowned decision in the 2018 Imret v. Turkey case.  

Terror legislation was the main argument underpinning Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe’s decision in its resolution downgrading Turkey’s accession bid – for the first time in CoE history – back to the monitoring status after 13 years. The EU Commission’s 2019 report on Turkey also focused on this deficit. Most recently, four different special rapporteurs of the U.N. in their periodic review report criticised Turkey for its application of terror charges. In this report, the U.N. also confirmed the government’s practice of extrajudicial killings, incommunicado detentions, torture and existence of unofficial detention centres in the name of the “fight against terror”. 

All in all, as a country that manipulates terror accusations for political purposes, Erdoğan’s new Turkey and its system of one-man-rule has proven to be an electoral autocracy, going beyond even an illiberal democracy.

Designated as “not free” in the latest report by Freedom House, Turkey now demonstrates all the features of an authoritarian regime. 

More saddening even than this is seeing that, unless a miracle happens, the price for this backslide in democracy and the rule of law will be paid by the most innocent and vulnerable people in Turkish prisons.

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