Turkey's political prisoners remain jailed despite release of thousands due to coronavirus fears

Turkey's political prisoners remain jailed despite release of thousands due to coronavirus fears
Turkey is keeping the lock on dissidents despite thousands of prisoners being released due to fears that prison conditions could encourage the spread of coronavirus.
3 min read
23 April, 2020
Erdogan denies arbitrarily holding prisoners [Getty]

Turkey has released tens of thousands of prisoners as part of a justice reform law passed last week as the country battles a deadly coronavirus outbreak – but political prisoners remain in jail despite the dangers.

A law reform passed by parliament posited the temporary release of thousands of prisoners, but excluded inmates serving time for serious crimes such as terrorism.

According to human rights groups, Turkish prosecutors have used terrorism charges to lock away the state's political opponents, as well as curb free press by arresting journalists, activists and lawyers on trumped up terrorism charges.

Selma Atlan, who is 71, is among some of the prisoners left behind.

Not only does her age make her particularly vulnerable in contracting Covid-19, but her daughter Su Esmen told The Washington Post that her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that obstructs airflow to lungs.

Contracting coronavirus would be particularly dangerous to her health - and she's not the only one at risk.

Others, held in pretrial detention or sentenced "without evidence that they committed violent acts, incited violence, or provided logistical help to outlawed armed groups [are at risk as well]", according to Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch.

Osman Kavala, 63, is a philanthropist accused of fomenting protests and Ahmet Altan is a 70-year-old novelist sentenced to more than ten years in prison on charges of aiding a terrorist organisation. Selahattin Demirtas is a human rights lawyer and former co-chair of Turkey’s second-largest opposition party and he, too, remains in prison.

Demirtas suffers from a heart condition.

This comes as Turkey is one of the worst-hit countries by coronavirus in the world, despite claims by the government that the pandemic is "under control".

Turkey's coronavirus outbreak is "under control", the country's health minister has said amid hopes for a "return to normal" after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The virus has spread to prisons, with more than 80 prisoners infected and three dead due to complications from the virus.

Some 90,000 people have been infected - more than the official numbers announced by China, where the outbreak began, and Iran, referred to as the "epicentre of the pandemic" in the Middle East.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking after the parliamentary vote to release prisoners, said "all measures have been taken to protect prisoners and convicts in prisons from the threat of the epidemic.

"Every precaution is being taken to prevent these people, whose rights, lives and health are entrusted to the state, not to get infected."

Dozens of human rights groups signed an open letter urging Turkey to release "all those arbitrarily detained, now at risk of Covid-19".

"While we welcome any measures taken to alleviate overcrowding in Turkey’s prisons, the new measures unjustifiably exclude tens of thousands who are imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their rights," the letter reads.

"[We] call on the Turkish authorities to take immediate steps to fulfill their human rights obligations by releasing all those arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and help mitigate the threat caused by the Covid-19 public health pandemic."

Turkey detained thousands of suspected supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, following an attempted coup in 2016.

Ankara has also detained suspected militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Islamic State group, following a string of shootings and bombings in Turkey.

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