Penal reform proposed by Turkey’s government will be fast-tracked in Parliament this week amid concerns over coronavirus outbreaks in jails.
The reform is expected to lead to the release of some 30,000 prisoners in one stroke, except for those behind bars over charges related to terrorism, drugs, violence against women and children, and sexual abuse.
Therefore, it will exclude journalists, politicians and human rights defenders facing terror charges.
There are more than 270,000 inmates in 375 prisons throughout the country. Prisons in Turkey are heavily criticized for being overcrowded, with many reports from lawyers and rights groups about people sleeping on floors. This may trigger a quick spread of coronavirus among inmates.
The government rejects claims made by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of coronavirus cases in prisons.
Human Rights Watch’s Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb told Arab News: “The fact is there are thousands of people in prison in Turkey who shouldn’t be there. They’re mostly accused of terrorism crimes, but in many cases there’s simply no evidence to support the charge even though they’re portrayed as the most serious category of prisoners.”
She said: “Because of the seeming severity of the charges, it’s precisely this category of prisoner whom the government is now proposing to exclude from prisoner release plans.”
She added: “While there are individuals in this category who’ve engaged in violent activities, the majority haven’t, and they include journalists, human rights defender Osman Kavala, Kurdish politicians like Selahattin Demirtas.”
Sinclair-Webb said given the arbitrary nature of detentions, any move to exclude such prisoners from release will raise concerns that once again they are being discriminated against for political reasons.
“If jailing them in the first place was political, exempting them from release would also be political,” she added.
Tugce Duygu Koksal, head of the Istanbul Bar Association’s Human Rights Center, said the reform should be applied to all equally because its aim is to protect public health in the prisons.
“If the underlying reason of this reform is to cope with the occupancy of the prisons, detention should be applied as a last resort, and such a mentality change should be applied to all relevant penal practices,” she told Arab News.
There is also a ban on visits to prisons as a measure against the spread of coronavirus.
Following the ban, the Journalists’ Association of Turkey and Reporters Without Borders urged the government to release all arrested journalists in the country.
Koksal said any reform that excludes imprisoned journalists would be problematic in terms of freedom of expression.
House arrest for old and ill inmates is also being discussed. Sinclair-Webb said there are many prisoners accused of terrorism offenses who are over 65 or have underlying medical conditions.
“And there are women with babies held for terrorism crimes. It’s impossible to argue that the charge they’re tried on, or have been convicted on, should justify depriving them of their right to health and applying discriminatory policies against them,” she added.
According to official data, the prison population increased by 88,000 between 2014 and 2017. In terms of the ratio of the number of convicts to the country’s population, Turkey ranks second after the US among member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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