Turkey’s “early release from prison” law leaves innocent and vulnerable prisoners at risk of COVID-19

Imprisoned journalists, writers, politicians, and human rights defenders are not in the ‘early release from prisons’ law passed by the Turkish parliament yesterday. Although there were more than 200 requested changes to the law by the opposition parties in the General Assembly, none of them was included in the final version.  

KONYA, TURKEY – SEPTEMBER 12 : A guardian unlocks the door to allow inmates of ‘Memorizers Dormitory’ for a visit at Konya Type E Closed prison on September 12, 2019. 13 inmates, who share the same dormitory called ‘Memorizers Dormitory’ at Konya Type E Closed prison, were influenced by their friends, who have completely memorized the holy Qur’an and became Memorizers (Hafiz), started to memorize the holy Qur’an. They aim to wear the cassock with a ceremony, held after one completely memorizes. (Photo by Abdullah Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The new law which is expected to allow for the early release of up to 100,000 prisoners, but fails to cover those who deserve it most. Reacting to these developments, Amnesty International’s Turkey Campaigner, Milena Buyum, said: 

Whilst any steps to reduce the chronic overcrowding in Turkey’s prisons are welcome, it is deeply disappointing that the tens of thousands of prisoners in pretrial detention – a measure that must only be used when there are no alternatives to custody – will not be considered for release… The authorities must also seriously consider releasing all those who are imprisoned pending trial, as well as those who are at particular risk because of their age or underlying health conditions regardless of the charge they have been imprisoned or convicted under.

President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have been working on a general amnesty law for the last a few years. It is publicly known that this amnesty was one of MHP’ conditions for forming the People’s Alliance with AKP in 2018 for the elections. The MHP previously tried to bring the law to Parliament, but Erdogan postponed negotiation.

On 31 March, the long-awaited judicial reform package was finally brought forward in response to the spread of COVID-19 in Turkish prisons. It was considered by the Justice Commission on 2 and 3 April but no significant amendments were added to broaden its scope to include prisoners of conscious, journalists, or politicians. 

Yesterday at the end of six-days of negotiations, the Execution Package prepared by the AKP in line with MHP’s suggestions was accepted at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey with 279 acceptance votes, against 51 rejection votes.

The plight of imprisoned Turkish human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians has garnered international attention. Before the law was passed, several international human rights bodies had appealed to Turkey to ensure the release of prisoners who were detained in violation of human right standards. 

In a statement, Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights declared that:

According to the relevant human rights standards as indicated by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) in its COVID-19 Statement of Principles, the resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty is imperative in situations of overcrowding and even more so in cases of emergency. … Clearly, in this context, it is also all the more imperative that those persons, including human rights defenders, activists and journalists, who are – in some member states – detained in violation of human rights standards be immediately and unconditionally released.

Twenty-seven human rights and freedom of expression NGOs in Turkey and tens of thousands in Turkey and elsewhere signed a petition urging the Minister of Justice to broaden the scope of the proposed measures. In the joint statement, NGOs express their concern “that journalists, human rights defenders and others imprisoned for simply exercising their rights, and others who should be released, will remain behind bars in the package of measures as currently conceived by the government.”

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