Political prisoners left to rot in Turkish jails despite inmate release order

Incarcerated journalists and political activists were excluded from a measure by the Turkish government to release a third of inmates and contain the fallout from coronavirus in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons.

Draft legislation drawn up by Turkey's parliament this week could see the release of up to 100,000 prisoners, or about a third of the incarcerated population, by expanding the criteria for granting early release. However, the COVID-19 mitigation measure does not cover the thousands who are in pre-trial detention or sentenced for terrorism offences or crimes against the state.

“It’s insane that they’re going to let murderers back out on the streets but put the life of a novelist who wrote three articles the government didn’t like at risk from the coronavirus,” writer and economist Mehmet Altan said, referring to his brother, novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan, who was incarcerated on coup-related charges in 2016. “For him to be held amid the coronavirus outbreak is equivalent to murder in my mind.”

The prisoner rights group Civil Society in the Penal System (CISST) had received a flood of complaints from 26 prisons about the risk of contamination by overcrowded cells and poor hygiene standards, state news Anadolu Agency reported on Friday. Some inmates criticised poor nutrition and inadequate medical treatment for patients with fevers.

Human rights organisations have accused the government for filling its ill-conditioned prisons with political prisoners, which increases the chance of an outbreak.

“Every government should be looking at how they can empty out their prisons and reduce interactions between prisoners, especially those in group cells,” said Time magazine, citing Amnesty International’s MENA region director Heba Morayef. “The problem for a lot of the more repressive Middle Eastern governments is that they have become so used to using mass incarceration as a way to silence opposition.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday called on world governments to take urgent action to ensure the health of prisoners during the pandemic, otherwise the consequences would be “potentially catastrophic”.

“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” Bachelet said.

The Turkish government has not yet confirmed a single case in the prison population.

A Turkish MP for the Peoples' Democracy Party, Ömer Gergerlioğlu, said Ankara’s chief prosecutor placed him under investigation for saying that an inmate from Sincan prison tested positive for COVID-19.

Gergerlioğlu, who is also member of Turkey’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee, has created an online petition to pressure the government not to discriminate between prisoners in its reform package.