Turkish authorities seek to make COVID-related restrictions in prisons permanent, jailed Kurdish leader says

Turkey’s Justice Ministry is trying to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic in order to continue restricting the visitation rights of inmates, jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş said, according to a series of tweets shared from his account on Monday.

“Restrictions on family and lawyer visits that were imposed due to the pandemic are still continuing,” Demirtaş said. “The Justice Ministry is trying to capitalize on the crisis to usurp these rights permanently.”

Demirtaş said he was speaking more for other inmates than for himself. “Edirne Prison has been abuzz with sound of protesting inmates for the last 20 days. Can you hear them?” he asked.

Families of inmates have been voicing protests as contact visitation in Turkish prisons has not been allowed since the beginning of the pandemic despite the elimination of restrictions for such large gatherings as weddings and concerts.

Even if the inmates have been vaccinated, the families can only see their loved ones behind glass panels during non-contact visits.

In contact visitation, the inmate and visitor are permitted in the same area without a barrier between them, under close supervision.

Demirtaş also criticized the leaders of opposition parties for not including the issue on their agenda. “Opposition leaders who visit various places, would you consider visiting the prisons, which have a population of 300,000?” he asked. “When you take power, you’ll be responsible for the prisons, too. It would be useful to see what’s going in the prisons firsthand. Indeed, I have seen enough.”

According to Mehmet Durakoğlu, chairperson of the İstanbul Bar Association, the pandemic is being abused by the government as a tool to legitimize rights restrictions and is especially true for prisons. “Precautions can be taken to save lives, but they should be done within the limits of the law,” Durakoğlu said.

In a video message shared on Twitter last month, Başak Demirtaş, the wife of the jailed Kurdish leader, had said despite the lifting of many pandemic measures, contact visits were still not allowed and that the number of non-contact visits had been cut by half. “Let alone open visitation, this Eid we are not even allowed a non-contact visit. They didn’t even provide additional phone call privileges,” she said.

Demirtaş was the co-chairperson of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) when he was arrested in November 2016. He has been behind bars since then despite a decision from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in November 2018 that ruled Demirtaş’s pre-trial detention was a political act and ordered his release. Turkish courts refused to implement the European court’s ruling, and a regional appeals court in Turkey subsequently upheld a prison sentence handed down to Demirtaş for disseminating terrorist propaganda.

Demirtaş was an outspoken critic of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, before he was jailed. He ran in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2018 as a rival to Erdoğan. Demirtaş conducted his election campaign from jail for the 2018 election.

Erdoğan has accused of Demirtaş of being a “terrorist” due to his alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has slammed calls for his release. According to former judge Kemal Karanfil, inmates are by law entitled to contact visitation once every month. “They are also allowed contact visitation on religious and national holidays,” he said.

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