Corona outbreak in Turkish prisons could be swept under rug

If a sudden rash of coronavirus cases were to emerge in Turkey’s unsanitary, still crowded prisons - where tens of thousands of detainees and political prisoners languish after last week’s release of some 90,000 criminals - Turkish citizens and the world would likely hear little about it, because of a widely overlooked article in the new amnesty law.

Six weeks after reporting its first case of COVID-19, Turkey had as of Thursday recorded more than 102,000 infections and some 2,500 deaths, and many have criticised the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for its muddled response to the pandemic.

To reduce overcrowding and minimise the risk of a massive coronavirus outbreak, Turkey’s parliament last week passed a bill allowing for the temporary or permanent release of a third of the country’s prison population, or about 90,000 prisoners.

Utku Çakırözer, a parliamentarian for Eskişehir for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), pointed out three key injustices within the new law.

The first is that while thousands of convicted felons, including mafia bosses, thieves and child pornographers, have been released, tens of thousands of people who are held in pre-trial detention as their court cases continue remain in prison. Hundreds, even thousands of them, could end up being found innocent, yet today they continue to be exposed to a potential COVID-19 prison outbreak while convicted criminals walk Turkey’s streets.

“This is not fair. This is not equal. This is not just,” Çakırözer, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, told Ahval in a podcast. “Of course, like many other countries we have to focus on this overcrowding in prisons. We have to ease this situation, but should do it with fairness and equality.”

His second issue is that tens of thousands of political prisoners -- including journalists like Ahmet Altan, activists like Osman Kavala, and politicians like the former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş -- were excluded from the amnesty.

Last week, a group of 24 international rights and free speech groups urged Turkey to release these journalists, activists, politicians and others who had been arbitrarily detained. “The new measures unjustifiably exclude tens of thousands who are imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their rights,” the organisations said in a statement.

Çakırözer said it was unconscionable that these people had been excluded. “They have been left to face this virus in the prisons,” he said. “This exclusion is not acceptable; this is a violation of the Turkish Constitution.”

His third issue with the new law is the inclusion of an article stipulating that all newspapers that no longer receive advertisements from the Press Advertisement Agency (BİK) will be barred from reporting in prisons.

As of now this includes at least two daily newspapers that have a reputation for critical coverage of the government, Evrensel and BirGün. But in a country with a 90 percent pro-government media landscape, Çakırözer believes the rest of Turkey’s few remaining independent outlets could soon be added to the list.

“This agency has in the last year started to punish newspapers without any judicial decisions, just because of what they write, or their headlines,” he said, adding that newspapers that receive no BİK ads for six months are no longer eligible to receive commercial advertisements, a crucial funding source.

“I said in the parliament, ‘You should give up this idea of using this state advertising agency as a stick on the head of the press institutions’,” said Çakırözer. “This also is against the right of the people to get informed.”

Media watchdog Reporters without Borders released its annual world press freedom index on Tuesday, with Turkey again ranking near the bottom, at 154 out of 180 countries. This actually marked a slight improvement from the last two years, when Turkey ranked 157th.

Yet autocratic states like Russia, Brunei, and Belarus outperformed Turkey, which investigated thousands of social media accounts for posts critical of the government in the first weeks of the pandemic and detained more than 10 journalists.

Çakırözer, a longtime journalist, recalled the early years of AKP rule, when Turkey’s democratic institutions appeared to be strengthening, as in October 2005, when negotiations for full membership in the European Union began.

“Now we’re going backwards. We are very far from fulfilling the political criteria, especially in media freedoms,” he said. “It’s a shame that we are remembered, we are known by the world as the biggest journalist prison.”

An additional concern about the amnesty law is that released criminals will soon commit crimes. A Gaziantep man who had been convicted of domestic abuse after stabbing his wife and served just six months in prison before his release last November, reportedly beat his 9-year-old daughter to death this past weekend.

“Most of society is very much concerned that those people who have taken amnesty and been freed from prisons would turn to crime again,” said Çakırözer.

Yet the media advertising article in the prison amnesty could well mean that Turkey’s few remaining critical news outlets will be barred from reporting in prisons, where many analysts and health experts expect a deadly outburst of COVID-19 infections in the days ahead.

At one prison in the United States - where sanitation measures tend to be much better than in Turkish prisons - about four of every five inmates tested positive for coronavirus this week. Turkey has yet to see this sort of prison outbreak, but most observers believe it is only a matter of time.

Altan, the imprisoned journalist, wrote last week that COVID-19 would “spread like a forest fire” in Turkish prisons in the event of an outbreak. On Wednesday, Selahattin Demirtaş’s wife, Başak Demirtaş, said on a podcast that her husband’s life was under threat in prison, because his respiratory ailments and high blood pressure make him particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

While the amnesty bill was being debated in parliament, Çakırözer says his party, the CHP, proposed more than 200 possible alterations, including cutting the political prisoners’ exclusion and the media advertising article, and all of them were rejected.

“They haven’t done any corrections or betterments to the law,” he said, adding that the CHP is preparing its appeal and planning to challenge the law in the country’s top court. “If Turkey is to be a rule of law state, a democratic country, this has to be corrected by the Constitutional Court.”

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