President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government has rejected calls from human rights organizations to release inmates from two overcrowded prisons despite detection in those facilities of the coronavirus, which has caused the death of more than 8,000 people around the world.
A purge of thousands of dissidents in the aftermath of a coup attempt in July 2016 has filled Turkey’s prisons, which today are overcrowded with tens of thousands of political prisoners.
Following the quarantine of a prison in Edirne, a Turkish province that borders Greece, on March 16, 2020, Kepsut Prison, located in northwestern Balıkesir province, was also quarantined the next day.
China, Italy, Iran and Bahrain have released prisoners over coronavirus concerns. The Iranian government has temporarily released 85,000 inmates in an emergency move to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Turkish government has also rejected opposition parties’ calls for parliamentary meetings to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and killed this week’s motion to establish an investigation committee to look into the disease.
On Wednesday Erdoğan announced a number of measures to battle the spread of the coronavirus following an emergency meeting convened to coordinate the fight. Yet the release of prisoners was not among the measures disclosed by the Turkish president.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights defenders, revealed how he received news from Edirne Prison that three prison guards tested positive there for COVID-19, as a result of which the prison was put under quarantine. A day later, Balıkesir’s Kepsut Prision was also quarantined, Turkish media reported. “A short while ago my husband called and informed me that contamination in a cell had been detected and that they had put everyone in quarantine,” the wife of an inmate told reporters.
On March 16 Gergerlioğlu launched a campaign for the release of all prisoners starting with those at greatest risk and submitted a parliamentary question directed to the Ministry of Justice about health conditions in the country’s prisons.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu
A number of health institutions and human rights organizations held a joint press conference on March 16, 2020 at which the Civil Society Association for the Department of Corrections (Ceza İnfaz Sisteminde Sivil Toplum Derneği, or CİSST), the Human Rights Association’s Istanbul branch, the Istanbul Chamber of Dentists, the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors, the Public Law Research Foundation, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, the Lawyers Association for Freedom and others released a joint press statement calling on the justice ministry to take necessary measures against the coronavirus in prisons and to implement those measures in a manner compatible with human dignity and does not lead to a violation of rights.
The organizations urged the justice ministry to postpone the sentences of prisoners who are in high risk groups or who are unable to take care of their personal hygiene. The disabled, the elderly, children, pregnant women and inmates suffering from chronic diseases should be considered, the groups said.
“In order to protect the health of inmates in prisons and to ensure a clean environment conducive to personal hygiene, cleaning supplies should immediately be provided free of charge to prisoners,” the statement said.
According to the press release, inmates should be provided with adequate, balanced and healthy nutrition; the files of sick prisoners who have applied for postponement of the execution of their sentences for health reasons pursuant to Article 16 of the Law on the Execution of Sentences should quickly be reviewed, and those prisoners should be provided opportunities for treatment outside the prison; prisons should have an adequate number of health personnel on staff; and all inmates, prison personnel and relatives of prisoners who show symptoms of the coronavirus should immediately be tested.
Turkey’s health institutions and human rights organizations held a joint press conference on March 16, 2020
In an interview with the Medyascope news website, Gergerlioğlu underlined the fact that there are around 300,000 people in Turkey’s prisons, a number far above the country’s prison capacity, and that the problem of overcrowding in prison had previously led to a scabies outbreak.
“Sick and elderly inmates as well as pregnant women and mothers should be evacuated as a priority. We have seen overcrowded prison wards during our visits. There was mold and humidity. People could not even breathe,” he stated. He also pointed to imprisoned cancer patients, whose immune systems have presumably been weakened by their condition.
“It does not seem possible for prison administrations to manage such a crisis under these circumstances,” he also tweeted on March 16, adding: “You are taking drastic measures for the general population, but not for the prisons. This is a grievous wrongdoing! You cannot leave these people alone behind bars with a deadly disease.”
Despite the aforementioned developments, Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül claimed that no inmate has thus far tested positive for the coronavirus and that meetings with lawyers have been restricted as part of measures to contain the epidemic. Yet, according to lawyers and human rights defenders, this measure is not enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to prisons and detention centers. There are currently 11,000 women and around 800 children in Turkish prisons and holding facilities.
Criminal law expert Professor Adem Sözüer indicated that judicial supervision mechanisms such as the requirement to regularly report to a local police station and a ban on travel abroad should be used more effectively as a preventive measure, saying: “Being essentially a political process requiring the enactment of new laws, legislation to reduce sentences and to regulate their execution would take time. Yet, the use of judicial supervision is left to the discretion of judges and prosecutors who can quickly put it into effect,” urging judges to opt for conditional release instead of incarceration.
According to Nesrin Nas, former leader of the Motherland Party (Anavatan), the restriction of meetings with lawyers cannot be a solution. “Prisons are at great risk. Restricting meetings with lawyers is not a solution. There is no water in many prisons. Wards are full to the brim. Inmates are not exposed to sunshine and they are malnourished. At the very least, political prisoners and children should be released. Should the outbreak spread to prisons, it will be transformed into a mass slaughter.”