Turkish justice minister promises reforms to improve healthcare in prisons

ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 24: Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Bekir Bozdag gives a speech during a press conference as the cabinet meeting continues in Ankara, Turkey on July 24, 2017. Mehmet Murat Onel / Anadolu Agency

Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ has said reforms will be made to improve the care of sick inmates in Turkish prisons.

Speaking to the Türkiye daily, Bozdağ addressed criticism that some sick inmates — especially political prisoners — were neglected in prison and denied release to seek proper treatment. “When considering if a sick inmate should be released, we take into consideration reports from Turkey’s Council of Forensic Medicine [ATK], and the prosecutor’s decision,” he said.

However, as the number of sick prisoners dying in prison has increased, doubts about the credibility and independence of the council have grown since the institution is affiliated with the Ministry of Justice.

Bozdağ said they did not discriminate against sick prisoners and that each case was considered objectively. “If the ATK says a prisoner cannot take care of themselves and the prosecutor rules they are not a danger to society, we will consider releasing them,” he said. “The ministry is currently deliberating on how we can change the regulations for these inmates to be treated more humanely.”

Bozdağ explained such reforms also included better treatment options for sick inmates.

Although Bozdağ said all prisoners were treated equally, legal experts and human rights activists argue otherwise.

The lawyer for Aysel Tuğluk,  a former pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politician who was arrested for “membership in a terrorist organization,” claims she is suffering from dementia and must immediately be released from prison to receive proper treatment.

The former politician’s lawyer, Serdar Çelebi, said she could not even understand the questions put to her during hearings and was not in a position to be left alone in prison. Despite her lawyers’ efforts, the ATK issued a report saying Tuğluk was fit to remain in prison, and she continues to be incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Kocaeli province.

In a different case the former chief of general staff, retired general Çevik Bir, who was handed down a life sentence in 2018 for his role in the post-modern coup of 1997, was released from prison due to dementia earlier this month.

Activists argued that Tuğluk was entitled to the same treatment as Bir and should immediately be released.

Moreover, political prisoners who are severely disabled are continue to be incarcerated although they need close care and continuous treatment. Two women who are nearly completely paralyzed in Ankara’s Sincan Prison are only two examples of a long list of disabled prisoners.

In addition to those who remain in prison despite critical illnesses, there were many who were arrested while being treated for advanced stage cancer. The families of those who were arrested said their loved ones could not continue their treatment in prison and were neglected.

Ahmet Zeki Özkan, 65, was arrested on terrorism charges despite suffering from end-stage lung cancer. According to Özkan’s wife, he was not even provided with a bed and was made to sleep on the floor. The ATK had issued a report saying Özkan was not fit to be in prison, but the Antalya Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office ruled against postponing his sentence based on the report.

Critics have slammed Turkish authorities for refusing to release critically ill prisoners. Human rights defender and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu previously said critically ill political prisoners were not released from prison “until it reaches the point of no return.” He depicted the deaths of seriously ill prisoners in Turkey who are not released in time to receive proper medical treatment as acts of “murder” committed by the state.

According to the most recent statistics published by the Human Rights Association (İHD), the number of sick prisoners is in the thousands, more than 600 of whom are critically ill. Although most of the seriously ill patients have forensic and medical reports deeming them unfit to remain in prison, they are not released. Authorities refuse to free them on the grounds that they pose a potential danger to society.

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