Case of jailed teacher shows devastating effects of overcrowding and COVID-19 on prisoners

Fırat Mercan
Fırat Mercan

The case of a jailed teacher whose health deteriorated in prison after sleeping on the floor for five months due to overcrowding but who didn’t want to go to the hospital to avoid 14 days of quarantine in solitary confinement shows the devastating effects of overcrowding and the COVID-19 crisis for Turkey’s prison population.

Fırat Mercan, a biology teacher, was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for membership in a terrorist organization and has been incarcerated since October 2019. He had to undergo a major operation in 2016 for kidney stones. He also suffered from a post-operation infection, from which it took him a long time to recover. After he was imprisoned last year, he had to sleep on the floor for five months due to overcrowding, probably contributing to his problems.

Mercan is accused of membership in the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding an attempted coup on July 15, 2016 and labels it as a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity. Following the allegations, Gülen called on the Turkish government to allow for an international investigation.

According to his wife, Zeynep Mercan, her husband didn’t want to go to the hospital for six months to avoid COVID-19-related measures. Inmates who are returned to prison after an outside visit are required to quarantine for 14 days in solitary confinement. His condition deteriorated, and the doctors said he had to undergo another surgery for the removal of newly developed kidney stones.

The Turkish parliament passed a release bill in mid-April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s overcrowded prisons. But the law, which provided the possibility of early parole or house arrest to inmates, explicitly excluded tens of thousands of political prisoners such as politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial and broadly interpreted counterterrorism laws. The government has turned a deaf ear to calls from international organizations, NGOs and rights groups to include political prisoners within the scope of the release law.

Fırat Mercan’s wife is worried about her husband’s recovery in an overcrowded prison. “He must stay in a sterile environment after the surgery. He will need to go to the restroom frequently following the surgery, but he shares the ward and restroom with 34 other inmates,” she said.

Fırat Mercan has appealed his sentence and is waiting for a decision from an appeals court.

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