Human rights organizations demanded to know whether the Turkish Ministry of Justice had taken any precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, after authorities said a temporary release to ease overcrowding during the coronavirus pandemic would come to an end on May 31.
According to the Bianet news website, human rights organizations called on the ministry to reveal if prisoners were able to take PCR tests, had regular access to doctors and hospitals and how many were currently sick with the virus.
The organizations criticized the lack of transparency concerning COVID-19 in prisons as the ministry had not revealed any information on the matter since January 4. In their statement, the organizations said the number of COVID-19 cases in the country had fluctuated considerably since the start of the year, and they demanded to know the number of current cases in prisons.
“In a statement, the Directorate General of Prisons and Detention Houses said the country was in a state of normalization and that the pandemic was under control. Therefore, prisoners who were granted temporary release during the pandemic would be re-arrested by May 31. The statement does not give any explanation as to how the ministry plans on keeping the spread of the virus under control in prisons once they are at full capacity,” said the statement.
The temporary release, which was announced in April 2020, was granted to some 90,000 prisoners but will come to an end for 80,000 of them in May.
Amendments to the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures were approved in parliament on April 13, 2020 after the justice minister announced that 17 prisoners in five prisons had contracted COVID-19 and three had died.
The law, which allowed for the temporary release of up to 90,000 prisoners out of its prison population of some 300,000 inmates, drew criticism from within and without Turkey for categorically excluding political prisoners, some of whom are in particular risk groups due to their age or preexisting conditions, as well as for failing to address pretrial detentions at all. Inmates in minimum security prisons or who were eligible for transfer to those prisons and others who were sentenced to judicial probation benefited from the temporary release.
The pandemic-related release, which has been renewed 12 times since April 2020, will not be extended further since COVID-19 infections are decreasing in Turkey and is expected to end on May 31, local Turkish media said, citing sources from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
Some 80,000 prisoners were notified that they had to return to prison and serve the rest of their sentences as of May 31 and that those who fail to appear will be considered fugitives and the subject of arrest warrants.
The temporary release did not apply to several categories of inmates, including those held in pretrial detention as well political prisoners convicted under controversial counterterrorism laws such as journalists, lawyers and political and human rights activists and even those at heightened risk including older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions convicted under counterterrorism laws.