Turkey urged to release journalists, activists amid coronavirus outbreak

Ankara urged to release journalists and activists, as coronavirus threatens to sweep through Turkish prisons
3 min read
30 March, 2020
More than 20 rights organisations have called for the release of prisoners charged or convicted 'simply for exercising their rights'.
A number of prominent political prisoners are at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus [Anadolu/Getty]
Turkey must "immediately and unconditionally" release journalists, human rights activists and others jailed on political charges  due to the increase risks they face in prison from the novel coronavirus, rights groups have urged.

"We invite Turkish authorities to use this opportunity to immediately release unjustly imprisoned people, and give urgent consideration to the release of those who have not been convicted of any offence," rights organisations including Amnesty International, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders said in a joint statement on Monday.

Ankara has already drafted a law that would authorise the release of up to 100,000 prisoners, a third of the country's incarcerated population.

But the draft law has prompted outrage among government critics who say it could see people convicted of sexual assault, gender-based violence and drug trafficking go free, while those imprisoned on political charges remain behind bars and at risk of contracting Covid-19.

"Overcrowding and unsanitary facilities already pose a serious health threat to Turkey's prison population of nearly 300,000 prisoners and about tens of thousands of prison staff. That will only be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic," the 27 rights groups said.

"[We] call on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release journalists, human rights defenders and others who have been charged or convicted simply for exercising their rights," the statement read.

Many journalists, activists, lawyers, and politicians are jailed on terrorism-linked charges, accused of links to either the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group, or exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

In many cases, such political prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention for simply expressing an opinion, without any evidence of assisting the groups, classed as terrorist organisations.

The rights organisations have also called for Turkish authorities to release prisoners held in pre-trial detention.

"Pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure, yet it is applied routinely and punitively in Turkey," the joint statement said. 

The rights groups highlighted the cases of several prominent prisoners, including novelist Ahmet Altan, philanthropist Osman Kavala, and politician Selahattin Demirtas.

"Demirtas has previously reported heart-related health problems in prison, and both Altan and Kavala are over 60 years old meaning they could be at increased risk from Covid-19," the joint statement said.

"These people should not be detained at all, excluding them from release would only compound the serious violations they have already suffered."

Turkey has not yet reported any coronavirus cases among the prison population, but has confirmed more than 9,000 Covid-19 cases in the general population, including 131 fatalities.

"It's insane that they're going to let murderers back out on the streets but put the life of a novelist who wrote three articles the government didn't like at risk from the coronavirus," Altan's brother Mehmet told Time magazine.

"For him to be held amid the coronavirus outbreak is equivalent to murder in my mind," he said.

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