Riot erupts in southeast penitentiary, after parliamentary committee approves prisoner release bill

Turkish parliament’s Justice Commission on Saturday approved a divisive draft law that would release up to 100,000 inmates to stave off the spread of the deadly coronavirus, while leaving journalists and political prisoners in jail to fend for themselves.

Roughly 100 proposals for amendments in the bill by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and Good Party were all denied, Gazete Duvar reported.

Shortly after the decision, reports came in on a prison riot erupting in the Kurdish-majority city of Batman.

The unrest took place in Batman’s Type-M closed prison, Istanbul-based daily Özgür Gündem tweeted, posting video footage of the gendarmerie mobilising towards the jail.

A video by photojournalist Erdem Cizrelioğlu showed smoke rising from the facility. “Fire has broken out at Batman prison. Lawyers are expected to step in and get information,” Cizrelioğlu said.

Batman deputy mayor Mehmet Demir said he was waiting for developments with the prisoners’ relatives, showing a clip of several ambulances heading towards the prison.

“We call on the relevant institutions and persons to inform the public immediately on the situation and to take a position that will address the concerns,” said a written statement by the HDP, which was reported by Özgür Manşet.

The draft legislation, drawn up by the ruling Justice and Development Party and allied Nationalist Movement Party, 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.

Earlier, lawmakers slammed the proposal during negotiations in the commission, arguing it would release inmates responsible for some of Turkey’s deadliest incidents, yet keep press members and political dissidents in prison, Cumhuriyet reported.

The discrimination between prisoners is unfair and the scope of the legal amendments must surely be expanded, said CHP deputy Utku Çakırözer.

The CHP lawmaker said the proposal would pardon the perpetrators of the Soma and Ermenek mining disasters that killed a combined 301 and 18 people respectively, the Çorlu train accident that killed 25 passengers and the Aladağ dormitory fire that killed 12, including 11 children.

The CHP lawmaker called for “social peace” by expanding the proposal to include journalists and political prisoners.