Political prisoners set to be kept behind bars despite Turkish coronavirus amnesty

Turkey’s parliament is set to debate a bill to free tens of thousands from the country’s overcrowded prisons to try to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus behind bars, but people jailed on terrorism charges will not be released and rights groups say they include thousands of political prisoners convicted for simply speaking out against the government.

Human Rights Watch called on Turkey to include people jailed for expressing their views in the new law that could see around 90,000 of Turkey’s 300,000 prison population released early.

“Terrorism may sound like the gravest of offences, but in Turkey, the government misuses the charge for political ends. Many inmates are placed in lengthy pretrial detention or sentenced without evidence that they committed violent acts, incited violence, or provided logistical help to outlawed armed groups,” said Human Rights Watch’s Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb.

“It is important that prisoners who are not serving time for acts of violence, but instead are jailed for little more than their political views can benefit. There should be no discrimination on the basis of political opinion,” she said.

Political prisoners include Gültan Kışanak, the female mayor of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Kışanak was arrested in 2016 and sentenced in 2019 to 14 years in jail on charges of being a member of a terrorist organisation, charges that she and her supporters hotly deny.

Her daughter, Evin Jiyan Kışanak, said prison visits had been cancelled after Turkey confirmed its first case of coronavirus on March 11. She said she had been able to talk to her mother on the phone for 10 minutes in the last week. Her mother said the prison was not prepared for the pandemic. 

“The prison has not provided them with any hygiene products or sanitisers. Their ward has not been sanitised and there are mice everywhere,” Evin Jiyan Kışanak said her mother had told her. 

Evin Jiyan Kışanak said mother should be released due to her already poor health, but said an appeal for her to be freed had already been rejected. 

The draft law before parliament has been long in the making, but has been speeded up due to the pandemic. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Turkey has risen to 15,679 and 277 people have so far died with the disease. But there have so far been no reported cases of the virus within the prison population.

An earlier draft of the law included the possibility of early release of inmates convicted of sex crimes and other violent offences, but after a public backlash, sex offenders, murderers and a number of other criminals will not be freed. But the government has refused to budge on the issue of political prisoners.

One of the most prominent political prisoners in Turkey is Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been jailed since 2016 on a string of terrorism charges accusing him of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2018 ordered Turkey to release Demirtaş, saying his detention had the "ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate". But Turkey said the ruling was not binding and kept the Kurdish politician in jail, from where he still managed to come third in the 2018 presidential elections.

His wife, Başak Demirtaş, has called for the suspension of prison sentences and release of people held in pretrial detention.

“Prison cells are overcrowded, ventilation is inadequate, there is nearly no direct sunlight. It is not possible to be healthily nourished. Hygiene conditions are extremely inadequate,” she said in a video message on Twitter, warning of a potential catastrophe in the prisons.

Selahattin Demirtaş’s lawyer, Ramazan Demir, said most political prisoners in Turkey were held because they were opponents of the government, and excluding them from eligibility for early release from overcrowded jails during the coronavirus pandemic “equals leaving them to die”.

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