Züleyha Gülüm, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said Turkish prisons are turning into scenes of massacre as COVID-19 cases in the country have reached 520,167 with a daily increase of more than 32,000 cases.
According to Bold Medya, Gülüm stressed that prisons were one of the places with the highest risk of contagion. “In most prisons there is little sunlight, and there is no proper heating or ventilation,” she said. “It is difficult to shower on a regular basis, and the level of general hygiene is very low, making prisons a perfect environment for the spread of the virus.”
Gülüm added that political prisoners were the most disadvantaged. A purge of thousands of dissidents in the aftermath of a coup attempt in July 2016 has filled Turkey’s prisons, which today are overcrowded with tens of thousands of political prisoners.
The Turkish parliament passed an early parole law on April 14 aimed at reducing the inmate population of the country’s overcrowded prisons due to the coronavirus 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, prompted calls from the UN and the EU for the non-discriminatory reduction of prison populations.
Referring to the double standards political prisoners face, Gülüm claimed that their situation was worsened because they often faced mistreatment in prison. “Political prisoners are put in overcrowded prisons; they are unable to access cleaning products, and the prison administration uses the pandemic as an excuse to keep them from seeing their families and doing sports and other recreational activities,” she said.
Vedat Ece from Independent Lawyers’ Association (ÖHD) recently claimed that he interviewed inmates in Silivri Prison, notorious for its large number of political prisoners, where he found that inmates were not allowed sports, cultural activities or any kind of socialization during long months of quarantine.
In addition to these problems, inmates do not have access to doctors, dentists and sometimes even hot water, said Ece.
Gülüm said prisons were used as a threat mechanism by the government, where political prisoners were unlawfully kept. She brought to mind the recent death of two Kurdish citizens, Takiyettin Özkahraman, 75, and Ali Boçnak, 80, who were both critically ill and died in prison. Gülüm said political prisoners were not released if even if they were critically ill despite being at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“The justice system in Turkey is like the Middle Ages,” she said. “Many critically ill political prisoners are arbitrarily denied release despite the law.”
Indeed, the situation of sick prisoners who have been denied release especially during the pandemic has caused an outcry among opposition politicians and activists.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a prominent human rights activist and deputy from the HDP, has depicted the deaths of critically ill prisoners in Turkey who are not released in time to receive proper medical treatment as acts of murder committed by the state.
“They refuse to release the prisoners until it reaches the point of no return. They only release the prisoners when they realize they will die soon, not wanting them to die in prison,” he said.
Gergerlioğlu agreed with Gülüm in that prison administrations, judicial bodies, deputies in parliament, the Ministry of Justice and some doctors treat prisoners according to their “type of crime.” “Even the doctors treat their patients according to the prisoners’ ideological leaning and affiliation. Their most basic rights are violated. They apply the so-called ‘enemy law.’ Doctors, hospitals, gendarmes, prison guards and lawyers all act as if they had made a joint decision.”
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.