PACE Turkey rapporteurs call on authorities to free political prisoners

Amid fear of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread to Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapporteurs for the monitoring of Turkey, Thomas Hammarberg (Sweden, SOC) and John Howell (United Kingdom, EC/DA), have urged Turkish authorities to ensure that any early or conditional release of prisoners is non-discriminatory and does not exclude prisoners detained on political grounds.

The co-rapporteurs underlined in their appeal that they were “appalled to learn that these amendments could exclude politicians, journalists, academics, dismissed civil servants, civil society activists and many others detained on ‘terror related charges’ for exercising their right to freedom of expression or assembly.”

The co-rapporteurs further emphasized that “such discrimination would not be acceptable from a human rights point of view and would expose these people to additional acute and harmful sanitary risks in overcrowded prisons – thus imposing a double sentence on them.”

Their statement reads as follows:

“We welcome the steps taken by the Turkish parliament to examine draft amendments to the Criminal Enforcement Law in order to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus in detention centres. In particular, these should take into account the dramatic situation of older and sick inmates, pregnant women prisoners or women with children.

“They should also address the concerns raised by the Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee (CPT) in its recently-published statement of principles, which call on member States to use alternatives to deprivation of liberty, in particular in situations of overcrowding.

“However, we are appalled to learn that these amendments could exclude politicians, journalists, academics, dismissed civil servants, civil society activists and many others detained on ‘terror related charges’ for exercising their right to freedom of expression or assembly.

“The Assembly, including in its recent Resolution, repeatedly urged the Turkish authorities to revise – if not repeal – those provisions of the Anti-terror Law and the Criminal Code which continue to be interpreted too broadly, in contradiction with the case-law of the European Convention on Human Rights, leading to unjustified prison sentences or pre-trial detentions.

“In several prominent cases, the European Court of Human Rights or the Turkish Constitutional Court found violations of fundamental rights, which no longer justify the prolonged detention of journalists, politicians or civil society activists. It is therefore unthinkable that the proposed amendments should knowingly and deliberately deprive those detained on political grounds – and who do not pose a threat to society – from access to health measures and vital safe living conditions. Such discrimination would not be acceptable from a human rights point of view and would expose these people to additional acute and harmful sanitary risks in overcrowded prisons – thus imposing a double sentence on them.

“In this unprecedented and highly challenging period, all authorities in Europe bear responsibility and will be held accountable for the measures taken to ensure the health and right to life of all their citizens. We express our support for the Turkish authorities in their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore urge them to take all urgent steps needed to prevent its dissemination without discrimination, including in prisons, ensure access to relevant and necessary information and facilitate all initiatives, including those launched by local authorities, to reinforce preventive measures and ensure the right to health of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable or exposed ones.”

Seeking to reduce the population of overcrowded prisons in the country, the Turkish government has presented a bill to parliament that provides for the possibility of early parole or house arrest to inmates but excludes political prisoners such as politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial and broadly interpreted counterterrorism law. This move elicited strong criticism from the UN and the international community, with the EU and the COE being first and foremost. The bill was approved by a committee in parliament on April 4.

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