New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Turkish government on Monday to release tens of thousands of political prisoners on the eve of a new amnesty bill the government is planning to pass this week, which allegedly will exclude prisoners with terrorism charges.
Ankara’s move aims to reduce the prison population of 300,000 following the spread of the fatal coronavirus (COVID-19) which has caused over 16,500 deaths worldwide and killed thirty-seven people in Turkey.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director of HRW, published an article on Monday on the organization’s official website calling for Turkey to protect all prisoners from the pandemic under a planned early release program.
Overcrowded prisons in the country pose a pandemic risk to staff and inmates, the HRW representative asserted. She welcomed the move by the government to accelerate a plan to substitute prison time with alternatives such as early parole and house arrest.
“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,” said Sinclair-Webb.
Its western allies have been criticizing the government of President Erdogan for what they call “mass and arbitrary arrests,” as part of a crackdown targeting various dissident factions following an abortive coup of 2016.
According to early reports by the Turkish media, the draft law before Parliament will vacate up to 100,000 prisoners from jail but will exclude tens of thousands of inmates, including politicians, human rights activists, journalists, public officers, and academics.
Pointing out that thousands of prisoners in Turkey are in pre-trial detention or sentenced over terrorism-related charges or crimes against the state, HRW said: “Terrorism may sound like the gravest of offenses, 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. Among them are journalists like Ahmet Altan, politicians like Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, human rights defenders like Osman Kavala, and thousands of dismissed civil servants, teachers, and others punished for association with the Fethullah Gulen movement.”
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director of Human Rights Watch
HRW raised concern over “the misuse of terrorism laws in Turkey,” and as a result, the media, politicians, and lawyers have been the target of terrorism offenses.
“All efforts to reduce the prison population at this time are welcome, but such measures cannot become a tool for targeting political prisoners. Parliament should reject any discriminatory exemption of terrorism prisoners and sick prisoners who have applied for postponement of sentences,” Sinclair-Webb added.
Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges & Lawyers, also urged the Erdogan government to include the political prisoners in the upcoming early parole draft.
The #Turkish government is passing an amnesty bill in order to reduce the prison population. I also urge the government to grant this benefit to political prisoners, including lawyers, HRs defenders and journalists. #UN4Judges&Lawyers
— Diego García-Sayán (@UNIndepJudges) March 24, 2020
Last week, thirty-two bar associations in Turkey, including those in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, issued a joint statement calling for immediate action for prisoners in Turkey in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
32 bar associations in #Turkey ask to release prisoners from totally overcrowded prisons in Turkey because there are no other efficient measures against #coronavirus #Covid_19 pandemic. @rav_gs @Judges4J @Dunja_Mijatovic https://t.co/0GCWfaeS5L
— Rebecca Harms (@RebHarms) March 18, 2020
S&D vice-president responsible for foreign affairs, Kati Piri, shared a video of Basak Demirtas, the wife of imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, on her Twitter account urging the government to release prisoners under the core thread of coronavirus.
— Kati Piri (@KatiPiri) March 23, 2020
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, an MP for pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a Member of Human Rights Inquiry Committee, has started a petition on change.org on Monday, voicing the demands of families of political prisoners.
The judicial package for prisoners due to #coronavirus should also include political prisoners. Please SIGN our PETITION:
— Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (Eng) (@gergerlioglueng) March 24, 2020
“Primarily, all sick, elderly, women, and infant prisoners should be urgently released. And the judicial reform package, as well as the penal execution bill, should be designed in line with the constitutional principle of equality,” the petition said.
The Turkish government has not announced its latest plan on the amnesty bill yet.
Writing by Zubeyir Koculu, Editing by Lucy Walton