Increasing COVID-19 cases in Turkish prisons cause panic among families of political prisoners

An exponential increase of COVID-19 cases in Turkish prisons has caused panic among families of political prisoners following reports of outbreaks in prisons in three cities, Bold Medya reported.

A total of 64 known cases have been reported in prisons in the Turkish cities of Kastamonu, Manisa and İzmir. Relatives of political prisoners claimed that their loved ones were “left to die” in overcrowded spaces shared by 30 to 40 inmates, which has become a serious factor in the rapid spread of the virus.

One of the prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 was Ramazan Yasin Sürel, a former teacher summarily dismissed from his job and arrested for alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

A family member said in an interview with Bold Medya: “Nine people in his cell have tested positive [for COVID-19]. The coronavirus has spread in Kastamonu Prison, but no one cares about the health of these people.” The relative claimed that there were a total of 46 known cases in the prison.

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

A purge of thousands of dissidents in the aftermath of the coup attempt has filled Turkey’s prisons, which today are overcrowded with tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Relatives have also claimed that they cannot get any news from prison administrations about the inmates’ health status. “We heard that many prisoners were taken to the hospital this morning and that others were quarantined, but we have not been updated by the prison administration.”

The families of inmates in Izmir Menemen Prison claim that the cells are crowded to the extent that there is not enough space to even sleep on the floor. They expressed concerns of hygiene in such conditions.

Turkey’s parliament passed a law in April that allowed the release of tens of thousands of prisoners to ease overcrowding in prisons and protect detainees from COVID-19. The bill excluded those imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Amnesty International and 26 other rights groups and civil society organizations from Turkey and around the world released a joint statement in March calling for the release of Turkey’s political prisoners, particularly those with a high risk of complications due to COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.

The statement echoed previous calls on the Turkish government by rights defenders to relieve the overcrowded prisons and protect the lives of prisoners who are at high risk of infection. “In Turkey, anti-terrorism legislation is vague and abused in trumped up cases against journalists, opposition political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders and others expressing dissenting opinions,” the statement said.

Following the coup attempt, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and launched a massive crackdown on followers of the Gülen movement under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. Over 540,000 people were detained on terrorism-related charges, more than 80,000 were arrested or imprisoned and over 150,000 public servants were summarily removed from their jobs for alleged membership in or relationships with “terrorist organizations.” The purge mainly targeted people who were allegedly affiliated with the Gülen movement but included other people from a wide variety of backgrounds as well.

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