Turkish authorities are refusing to release thousands of political prisoners who have served their required time in jail, the tr724 news website reported.
Journalist Hanım Büşra Erdal is a case in point. She was sentenced to six years, three months in prison and served the mandatory 44 months, making her eligible for release on probation according to Turkish legislation on the execution of sentences. Yet authorities have refused to release her on the grounds that her sentence has not yet been upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Thousands of others who completed their prison sentences have not been released on these grounds. The office of the prosecutor in charge of the execution of sentences, which is required to release them on probation, reportedly refuses to do so.
Like tens of thousands of fellow political prisoners, Erdal was unable to benefit from a law enacted on April 15 aimed at reducing the inmate population of Turkey’s overcrowded prisons amid fear of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread to its correctional facilities.
The law provides the possibility of early parole or house arrest for a broad range of offenders by reducing the time that must be spent in prison from two-thirds to half the original sentence. Yet it explicitly excludes terrorism-related crimes and crimes against the constitutional order, among others.
Thus, a broad range of dissidents like Erdal, including tens of thousands of journalists, lawyers, politicians, academics, human rights defenders and civil servants indicted or convicted under the country’s controversial and broadly interpreted anti-terrorism laws, were excluded from the possibility of early parole.
Erdal worked as a correspondent for the Zaman daily, once Turkey’s top-circulating newspaper, which was seized by government authorities on March 5, 2016 over its alleged affiliation with the faith-based Gülen movement, the number one nemesis of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Designating the movement as a terrorist organization, Erdoğan started a witch hunt against real and perceived Gülenists and institutions affiliated with the movement.
An abortive coup attempt that threatened to oust Erdoğan on July 15, 2016 made matters worse for adherents of the movement. Accusing the leader of the movement, Fethullah Gülen, a cleric living in seclusion in the US, of masterminding the coup, an accusation strongly denied by Gülen, he put tens of thousands of real and perceived Gülenists behind bars.
Erdal was arrested on July 25, 2016, 10 days after the abortive putsch, on the accusation of membership in a terrorist organization, that is, the Gülen movement, solely over her news reports and tweets and the fact that she worked for Zaman. In her first hearing in 2017 the public prosecutor demanded 10 years for her. The court ordered her release instead. Yet she was rearrested before she was able to leave the prison. The judges who ordered her release were immediately dismissed.
According to the German Die Welt daily she was humiliated by prison authorities before being taken back to her cell, subjected to a strip search, which was unnecessary given that she was already under arrest. She was eventually sentenced to six years, three months on March 8, 2018.
She completed the required 44 months in prison and was eligible to be released on probation as of March 2020. But she is still in her single-person cell because her sentence, pending at the Supreme Court of Appeals, has not yet been finalized. To make matters worse she recently began to share her cell with another inmate transferred there to reduce overcrowded wards due to the coronavirus outbreak. “I cannot breathe, nor can I move in my cell,” she wrote in a recent letter to the Ahval news website.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a prominent human rights defender, mentioned Erdal’s case on his Twitter account and said: “There are many prisoners in similar situations being held in prison instead of being released during a pandemic because the supreme court has not yet approved their sentences! What a scandal! Is it revenge?”
According to lawyers, people who have completed their sentences should be released on probation even if their appeals have not yet been reviewed by the Supreme Court of Appeals. However, Turkish authorities, however, prefer not to take this course when it comes to people who were convicted on Gülenist charges.
Worse yet, authorities are even arbitrarily obstructing the release of people whose sentences have been upheld by the appeals court and who, as such, are entitled to benefit from the one-year probation period, according to İlker Doğan, a journalist from the tr724 news website.
Even if their cases are finalized by the Supreme Court of Appeals, Gülenists remain in prison by means of discretion granted to prison authorities by the Law on the Execution of Sentences. After a review by the high appeals court of an inmate’s sentence, a prison board drafts a report upon which the prosecutor’s office makes a decision. Based on these reports hundreds of prisoners who have served their time and are eligible for the one-year probation period are being kept in prison on the grounds that they did not repent for their crimes or confess their guilt during their trial.
In particular those public employees who, after being dismissed from government positions under emergency decree-laws, have been sentenced to six years, three months on the accusation of membership in a terrorist organization — read the Gülen movement — and who have completed their time in prison are prevented from benefiting from this one-year probation based on the prison administration’s discretionary powers.
A decision by the Niğde Prison administration on the release of an unidentified inmate who completed their time in prison reads: “The inmate in question from the time he/she came to our correctional institution onwards indicated no desire to discontinue his/her relationship with the [terrorist] organization. He/she continued to stay in a ward with inmates convicted on FETO/PDY-related crimes. [FETÖ/PDY is a derogatory term concocted by the Erdoğan regime to refer to the Gülenist movement.] Nor did he/she present any document to the prison administration showing that he/she has no connection whatsoever to the organization in question. He/she failed to benefit from the repentance provisions of the Turkish Penal Code during trial nor did he/she show any sign of repentance. … [Therefore] his/her request to benefit from the one-year probation is rejected.”
Lawyers claim that it is practically impossible to seek legal redress to such injustice or to sue those who abuse the discretion accorded them by law because they were granted immunity under emergency decree-law no. 667, which provided civil, criminal, administrative and financial non-liability for public officials in their counterterrorist acts and actions. Furthermore, the prosecution of those officials is subject to permission from the Ministry of Justice, which is not eager to see its personnel judicially harassed.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) recently published 2020 World Press Freedom Index in which Turkey ranked 154th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists.