Turkey must release 'terror' convicts at risk of Covid-19

Turkey must release 'terror' convicts at deadly risk from Covid-19, says Human Rights Watch
3 min read
03 April, 2020
Turkey's proposal to release some prisoners early is "positive", but "undermined" by the exclusion of thousands of inmates convicted on terrorism charges, who may be at grave risk of coronavirus.
Imprisoned opposition politician Selhattin Demirtas has a heart condition making him vulnerable to coronavirus [Getty]
Turkish authorities must include inmates with underlying health conditions in its plans for early release of prisoners as a coronavirus prevention measure, despite their conviction under antiterrorism laws, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

The group said it has looked into the cases of 14 prisoners whose health conditions put them at "at the greatest risk of death" if they were to catch Covid-19, arguing that they must be considered for the new programme to release detainees on parole or under house arrest.

However, the draft law for early release proposed by Turkish parliamentarians excludes prisoners detained for serious crimes, including terrorism offences, even if their health conditions put them at grave risk from the virus.

HRW's Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson said in a statement: "When taking action to protect prisoners from the COVID-19 virus, those at gravest risk should not be left out of consideration.

"The Turkish government's positive proposal to reduce overcrowded prisons is undermined by the blanket exclusion of thousands of inmates convicted on terrorism charges, including those at risk of death from the virus and those who should not be in prison in the first place," he added.

Turkey's parliament is set to vote on the draft law next week, and if passed, aims to significantly decrease the country’s prison population in order to prevent a coronavirus crisis in the overcrowded facilities.

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So far, the draft law stipulates early release of low-risk offenders and those with health issues, including pregnant women, older people with medical conditions and those nearing completion of their sentence.

However, tens of thousands of people languish in Turkey's prisons under terrorism charges, including those with links to the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), revolutionary leftist groups, or alleged affiliation with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which Turkey accuses of attempting a coup in 2016 and deems a terrorist organisation.

"Turkey has also detained, prosecuted, and convicted thousands of civil servants, lawyers, politicians, activists, and journalists for alleged links to these groups, although there is no evidence they committed violent crimes, incited violence, or provided logistical support to outlawed armed groups," said a statement from HRW.

However, the draft law's blanket exclusion for terrorism means that even those in provisional or pre-trial detention, numbering an estimated 43,000 inmates, as well as those with medical conditions that put them at lethal risk of Covid-19, are ineligible for release.

For vulnerable prisoners the COVID-19 pandemic risks turning a prison sentence into a death sentence

Furthermore, many political prisoners including journalists, politicians, and human rights activists are also on remand facing trial on terrorism charges. Among them are several over the age of 60, including the rights activist Osman Kavala, journalist Ahmet Altan and the politician in Selahattin Demirtaş, who is taking medication for a heart condition, HRW said.

The group added that extensive interviews with lawyers, prisoners’ family members, former prisoners and NGO workers revealed that the facilities are overcrowded, with inadequate protective and hygiene measures.

"For vulnerable prisoners the COVID-19 pandemic risks turning a prison sentence into a death sentence," Williamson said. "Prisoners who have been jailed for little more than their political views should be able to benefit from the early release law."

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