Stop discriminating in this time of distress… Release political prisoners, too

Amid fear of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic to the country’s overcrowded prisons, the Turkish government has presented a bill to the Turkish Parliament to reduce the number of inmates in its correctional institutions. While it is, in and of itself, a welcome step, the bill is also worrisome because it excludes journalists, lawyers, academics and human right defenders who were jailed on dubious terrorism charges. This discriminatory treatment of inmates has caused anxiety and frustration among human rights organizations and relatives of the prisoners excluded from the proposed legislation.

The bill on the execution of sentences, drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the consent of its ultranationalist supporter, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), basically contains early parole or house arrest for a broad range of offenders. According to the bill, for crimes committed before March 1, 2020, the time that must be served in prison will be reduced from two-thirds to half the original sentence, and probation will be increased from one to three years. The new regulation further provides that pregnant women and prisoners over 60 with certain health conditions can be released to house arrest or on parole. Drug dealers will also reportedly benefit from the legislation.

It is estimated that the new law will affect 100,000 inmates, thus reducing the country’s prison population by one-third. Yet some offenses, terrorism-related crimes and crimes against the constitutional order being first and foremost, are excluded from this amnesty. It means that tens of thousands of dissidents, journalists, political activists, politicians, academics and civil servants, imprisoned on flimsy terrorism-related charges after a coup attempt on July 16, 2016 will not benefit from this regulation and will be left to the mercy of the coronavirus.

It is widely accepted that the Turkish government misused its notorious counter-terrorism laws to crack down on dissidents. Members of the international community such as the Council of Europe, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, UN bodies and NGOs have time and again highlighted this fact, calling on Turkey to bring its counterterrorism-related legislation in line with international human rights standards. Turkey has so far turned a deaf ear to these calls.

It is unacceptable yet not inconceivable that the Turkish government will release all kinds of criminals such as drug dealers, thieves, robbers and the like who committed crimes against other citizens, yet it will keep in prison those incarcerated on charges of crimes against the state. Not inconceivable because immediately after the coup attempt, in a move to make room in the prisons for those political prisoners, a previous amnesty released tens of thousands of non-political offenders.

While every attempt at reducing the prison population is commendable, discrimination particularly at such a time of distress is deeply regrettable. Therefore, we call on the Turkish government not to repeat its mistake and to act in line with its avowed credo that “States are for humans” by including the political prisoners as well in its amnesty. SCF

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