Twenty-nine human rights organizations are urging the Turkish government to include political and human rights defenders in an amnesty bill that is set to go before the country’s parliament.
In a joint statement released on Monday, they say many of those political and rights defenders are behind bars for simply exercising their rights.
The call released by Amnesty International on behalf of the organizations came as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been reportedly working on a draft law that will release up to 100,000 prisoners amid growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey’s prisons.
The NGOs welcomed the amnesty bill as the risk of contagion and death from the virus is higher in prisons where about 300,000 prisoners and tens of thousands of staff have been kept in close contact, a perfect condition for the virus to spread.
However, the statement raised concerns that the upcoming law would reportedly exclude some prisoners, including journalists and human rights defenders, who have been behind bars for allegedly just expressing a dissenting opinion against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government.
The organizations called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of those “being held in lengthy pre-trial detention and were simply convicted of terrorism-related crimes without evidence that they ever incited or resorted to violence, or assisted illegal organizations.”
They also called on Turkish judicial authorities to re-examine all of the cases where there was pre-trial detention, referring to international human rights law and standards.
“There is a presumption of release pending trial, in accordance with the presumption of innocence and right to liberty. Pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure, yet it is applied routinely and punitively in Turkey,” the statement said.
The NGOs emphasized the need for release of vulnerable inmates, including those over 60 years and suffering health problems, as well as the need for prompt access for all prisoners to medical attention and health care with the same standards available to the community against the fatal epidemic.
With the package introduced as the third reform under its Judicial Reform Strategy revealed last summer, the AKP government reportedly envisages that the prisoners would be eligible for parole after they have served half of their sentence, while they are currently eligible after serving two-thirds of the sentence.
The new bill, which is expected to be passed in the Turkish parliament within days, will also put pregnant women and over-60 prisoners with documented health struggles under house arrest.
However, under the conceived law, a small number of convictions, including terror-related crimes, pre-trial detentions, and convictions under appeal, will be excluded from the reduction in sentences.
“In Turkey, anti-terrorism legislation is vague and widely abused in trumped-up cases against journalists, opposition political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders and others expressing dissenting opinions,” the call asserted, mentioning specifically the names of journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas, and businessman and activist Osman Kavala.
According to the rights organizations, the amnesty bill was intentionally excluding certain prisoners from release due to their dissenting political views, a move regarded by them as being against the principle of non-discrimination.
Those opposing figures are now further facing an “unprecedented risk to their health”, besides their unjust imprisonments over their exercising rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the statement vowed.
The activists also pointed to the Turkish authorities’ obligation to take the necessary measures to ensure the right to health of all prisoners without discrimination in line with international human rights law.
“We invite Turkish authorities to use this opportunity to immediately release unjustly imprisoned people, and give urgent consideration to the release of those who have not been convicted of any offense and those who are at particular risk in prison from a rapidly spreading disease in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where their health cannot be guaranteed,” the joint statement ended.
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty’s Media Manager for Europe, also announced the joint statement on his Twitter account.
Thousands of journalists, human rights defenders & others are behind bars in #Turkey simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression & peaceful assembly. With #Covid19 they now face an unprecedented health risk. #coronavirus #Covid_19 #Corona https://t.co/SAv0dxBeaZ pic.twitter.com/jVcI2bqazH
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) March 30, 2020
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based human rights organization, had also released a statement, calling on the Turkish government to release political prisoners.
There has been also an increasing reaction to the “discriminatory regulation” across the country.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a Member of Human Rights Inquiry Committee, on Monday has called for support to the hashtag, #DontTurnPrisonsIntoGraveyard, voicing the demands of families of political prisoners in the country.
During the live broadcasted program of TR724 (@Tr724), I called for support to the initiative of a fair and egalitarian law on execution of sentences.#DontTurnPrisonsIntoGraveyard#coronavirus #Covit19 #coronavirusturkey #CoronaPandemichttps://t.co/62GtaYmJZG
— Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (Eng) (@gergerlioglueng) March 30, 2020
Turkey’s officially confirmed number of cases has recently leaped by 1,815 to 9,217 in the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed 131 people so far.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to address the nation on Monday following a video conference meeting with his cabinet of ministers over the pandemic.
Erdogan’s Turkey has been criticized by many for “mass and arbitrary arrests” as part of a crackdown targeting various dissident factions following an abortive coup in 2016.
Consequently, Turkey’s prisons have been overcrowded, with the number of inmates reaching 286,000 while the capacity is only 218,950, according to the ministry of justice.