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Turkey to Open Overcrowded Jails in Light of Coronavirus
An example of artwork posted online by the children of Turkish prisoners. This one expresses the sense of unfairness over who is being freed and who is not. (Courtesy)

Turkey to Open Overcrowded Jails in Light of Coronavirus

Ankara plans to exclude political prisoners from early release

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have drafted legislation to reduce the nation’s prison population due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus in jails.

The text, finalized on March 22, includes early parole and house arrest, allowing the release of about 100,000 of 300,000 inmates. However, it excludes thousands sentenced for, or on trial for, “terrorism offenses” and “crimes against the state.”

Over the years, the government has been criticized for misusing terrorism charges for political ends.

“My father, Ahmet Boken, and many other journalists are being charged as terrorists so they will not be covered under the new law,” Esma Boken, daughter of the former executive director of TRT News, an arm of the country’s public broadcaster, told The Media Line in an email.

“If my father had been a rapist or a drug kingpin,” she said, “he would be freed.”

More than 90,000 political prisoners detained during a nationwide crackdown following an attempted 2016 coup have been charged with terrorism offenses.

Many citizens are urging the government via social media to avoid discriminating on the basis of political opinions and to allow political prisoners to benefit from the legislation.

“After finalizing our meeting with other parties, we will submit the proposal as soon as possible,” Cahit Ozkan, an AKP member of parliament, told Sabah news.

Opposition politicians such as Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) legislator and member of the parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee, started a petition that has been signed by more than 50,000 people asking for the alleged coup conspirators to be freed.

“The aspect of criminalizing thought with the Anti-Terrorism Law, classifying nonviolent thought and action as terrorism, is not legal,” Gergerlioglu said in an email to The Media Line. “It does not comply with the principle of equality in the constitution, and they [the authorities] are discriminating.”

Political prisoners include journalists such as Ahmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak; politicians such as HDP leader Selahtattin Demirtas; and human rights activists like Osman Kavala, who was rearrested on terrorism charges hours after his recent acquittal on similar charges in connection with the coup.

“Inter-party talks were held [regarding the release of political prisoners], but no result has come from it,” Gergerlioglu said. “Like every party, HDP has a draft [of a prisoner release bill]. Our draft is a fair and equal draft that includes thought criminals.”

American pastor Andrew Brunson, who lived in Turkey since the 1990s, was among the political prisoners detained in 2016. He was accused of spying and aiding terrorists, and was sentenced to just over three years in prison.

US officials said Brunson’s detention was an attempt by Ankara to gain leverage in disputes with Washington. The pastor returned to America in October 2018.

The AKP/MHP legislative proposal has also drawn sharp criticism from women’s rights groups, which are outraged that the sentences of sex offenders and people convicted of gender-based violence would be among those reduced. But according a recent speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the plan is to exclude those imprisoned for beating women or sexually abusing children, as well as terrorists, murderers, and top drug dealers.

Criminal lawyer Umur Yildirim, however, says those drafting the legislation should use a finer comb.

“The wording of the crimes listed should be noted and assessed carefully,” Yildirim told The Media Line.

“While they should include all sex crimes [for offenders who will remain in prison], they have only listed ‘cinsel istismar,’ Yildirim said, using the term for sexual abuse cases where the victim is under 18. “So anyone who has been convicted of sexually assaulting someone older than 18 will be able to benefit from the proposed legislation.”

The bill will be presented to parliament later this week, when other parties discuss it and seek amendments.

Meanwhile, Boken, the imprisoned journalist’s daughter, continues to worry.

“It is impossible to protect prisoners from coronavirus,” she told The Media Line. “[Prisons] are overcrowded, and the only precaution the state has taken is to ban visits to jails.”

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