“Listen to the rest of the world, clear out the prisons as soon as possible!”

“The primary objective of a regime is the construction of docile bodies…”

This is an astute observation from the famous French thinker Michel Foucault.

Traditional disciplinary models of the past created punishment systems that were geared mostly towards eliminating people’s bodies and lives. These systems changed with modernity, and became based not on extinguishing life but disciplining it instead and constructing bodies in “its own image”.

Every regime secures its continuation and public legitimacy by shaping the judicial system in its own favour. This is how a system of punishment is born, using prisons to render individuals submissive to authority.

In Turkey, there are more than 300,000 prisoners, not all of whom have been convicted. The conditions in Turkey’s prisons are not well known. Since the number of prisoners exceeds capacity, the crowded conditions in prisons lead to many problems.

Keeping people in crowded cells, coupled with a failure to maintain hygiene standards, increases the risk of outbreaks and illnesses.

As the pandemic spreads, the world is now recognising the importance of isolation and hygiene, and taking precautions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that the places still at risk of accelerated infection are prisons, dormitories and nursing homes.

Many governments are releasing inmates (some convicted, some not) as a result, but this issue did not come under discussion in Turkey until last week. The Turkish government has proposed a law to release prisoners through a partial pardon, in order to ameliorate the crowded conditions in prisons.

This move may seem innocuous on the surface, but examining the contents of the proposed law reveals intentions that are far more objectionable. The sections of the bill that have been published in the press call for the enforcement of disciplinary measures for wilful homicide, but also for “terror”, which is a charge that has been levelled against anyone who speaks up against the government.

To that end, the government has conflated armed Kurdish groups with Kurdish politicians, organisers and writers who have been striving for ethnic rights and representation for Turkey’s largest minority group.

It is clear that the Turkish judicial system has strayed from its central parameters. The regime has reached a point where criticising the government in the most banal way has become a punishable offence. With the proposed law, the regime appears to be stating that it is not willing to forgive crimes against the state, yet it is willing to forgive crimes against individuals and the public. Although the government’s priority should be reversing punishment pertaining to the government and the regime, it is instead taking the opposite approach.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken our entire world hostage, the regime of President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not giving up on its expansion of control through appointing its own officials to take over local administrations from elected Kurdish mayors. Last week, the party used the pandemic as an excuse to to replace municipalities governed by the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which represents the Kurdish movement in Turkey, with its own appointees. The AKP sees this step as necessary for the continuation of the regime, and though there is no legitimacy to the policy, it continues to remove our representatives from office.

Is there any reason to expect rule of law, legitimacy, justice or the protection of rights from the AKP or its far-right coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party? Now, as we live under opaque governance and do not even know how many people in Turkey have lost their lives to the pandemic, the government not only fails to take necessary precautions in prisons but, even more strikingly, outside of them. People are abandoned to poverty, and workers in crowded workplaces and factories are left to deal with COVID-19 on their own. How much should we really believe announcements in which the government claims to have taken the necessary precautions?

Even Iran, which we know is not democratic, prioritised its political prisoners when 80,000 inmates were released.

In other words, the Turkish government can only pardon crimes against itself, not crimes against the public.

As it stands, when we look to the “equality before the law” clause enshrined in Article 10 of the constitution and international law standards for basic rights and freedoms, which Turkey is a signatory to, it is clear that the “partial pardon” is unacceptable.

It is in no way acceptable for the regime to choose those it sees fit to release, while abandoning to death in prison journalists, students, lawyers, and intellectuals who are accused of thought crimes.

However, these observations should not be taken to mean that those of us in prison expect a political pardon. We have not committed any crime, so there is nothing to regret and no need to ask for forgiveness. We are not the ones being judged, we are the ones passing judgement. We are in prison because we called on society’s conscience and judged the regime’s immorality. Because we questioned the legitimacy of the regime and shared its wrongdoings with the public. We in no way expect a pardon for this, because we are not the guilty ones.

We have been trying to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons with insufficient resources. We do not know how successful our prevention efforts will be, with the few cleaning products we were able to acquire from the commissary store. But if the pandemic continues spreading, the regime’s policies will lead to more deaths.

As a doctor, I give my fellow prisoners morale by telling them that we must be our own motivators and protect ourselves against sickness and outbreaks. To those on the outside, to the workers and the impoverished, I say that we will overcome this pandemic through our belief in science, and by supporting each other.

We can only overcome these challenges with a spirit of solidarity and by accepting a democratic lifestyle.

These are the steps that must be taken:

  • There should be immediate action taken in prisons, where the impact by COVID-19 will be the swiftest and most severe.
  • Detention centres operating far above capacity must immediately be emptied.
  • International guidance should not be ignored.
  • Transparency must be practised and the entire public should be informed about this situation.

Let us not forget that solidarity gives life, and regimes destroy it. By believing that we will overcome all challenges through solidarity, I say that we will certainly move past this barrier as well.

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