Lawyer arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges dies of COVID-19 in prison

Lawyer Metin Yücel, who was arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges in October 2016, has died in prison after contracting COVID-19.

Yücel’s death was announced by Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a human rights activist and lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), from his Twitter account.

“Prisoners are dying, and not one explanation from the authorities,” Gergerlioğlu tweeted. “We have been waiting since June for the minister of justice, Abdülhamit Gül, to explain why these people are dying.”

Gergerlioğlu had said in June 2020 that the Ministry of Justice was not transparent or honest about the exact number of COVID-19-related deaths in Turkish prisons.

The ministry in fact made contradictory statements about the number of COVID-19-related fatalities. Minister Gül said there were only three inmates who had died from the virus, while his deputy Uğurkan Kuş said there were none by June 2020. According to Kuş, the inmates who had died had not died from the virus itself but because they had underlying conditions.

These statements caused an outcry from opposition politicians and activists who said the ministry was deliberately persisting in not providing the correct information.

İlhan Öngör of the Human Rights Association (İHD) said families were anxious about their loved ones in prison. He said the ministry’s contradictory remarks indicated that they did not take the pandemic and its impact on prisoners seriously.

According to Züleyha Gülüm, a deputy from the HDP, Turkish prisons have been turned into scenes of massacre as COVID-19 cases peaked in the country. She said political prisoners were the most disadvantaged as a purge of thousands of dissidents in the aftermath of a coup attempt in July 2016 had filled Turkey’s prisons with tens and thousands of political prisoners.

Yücel, who was arrested for alleged membership in the Gülen movement, was one of the many political prisoners who was unable to benefit from an early parole bill the government passed in April 2020, to ease prison overcrowding amid the pandemic.

The legislation, which excludes political prisoners such as politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial counterterrorism laws, has prompted calls from the UN, the EU and rights groups for the non-discriminatory reduction of prison populations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

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