US House Foreign Affairs chairman urges release of political prisoners in Turkey

In a letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel and Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Europe William R. Keating urged the Turkish government to ensure equitable application of prison release policies and to “reject the abuse of severe criminal penalties to suppress criticism and opposition.”

The two also expressed “deep concern for the way the Turkish government has implemented policies intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated populations.”

The Turkish parliament passed a release bill in mid-April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s overcrowded prisons. Providing the possibility of early parole or house arrest to inmates, the law explicitly excludes tens of thousands of political prisoners such as politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial and broadly interpreted counterterrorism laws. The government has turned a deaf ear to calls from international organizations, NGOs and rights groups to include political prisoners within the scope of the release law.

In their letter Congressmen Engel and Keating expressed their firm belief in the value of the US-Turkey relationship but at the same time highlighted the importance of living up to the alliance’s foundational values: “Above all, we must ensure that human rights, democratic freedoms, and the rule of law are protected. … We have long been concerned about the abuse of certain severe criminal charges in Turkey in order to suppress journalists, civil society activists, and members of the political opposition who do not appear to have committed any criminal acts.”

Engel and Keating said they were deeply troubled that the prison release policies have intentionally excluded journalists, activists and political opposition figures from consideration for release and urged President Erdoğan “to give [them] the same treatment as others who have been released to house arrest to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a similar move Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 27, 2020 urging the US government to ask the Turkish government to release political prisoners excluded from the scope of the release law..

There has recently been disturbing news about the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s still overcrowded prisons.

In early April the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) and the country’s Human Rights Association (İHD) raised an alarm as two doctors in Şakran Prison in the western port city of İzmir tested positive for COVID-19.

On May 30 the İstanbul Bakırköy Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced the death of an inmate at Silivri Prison from COVID-19. The number of confirmed cases in the facility has reached 82, but some reports claim that the number of coronavirus cases inside the prison is much higher than reported. Recent reports in the Turkish media also indicate that the inmates have been ill-treated due to a lack of testing and adequate food.

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