Turkey: Immediately Release Political Prisoners

PEN International, English PEN and Turkish PEN joined the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and five other international human rights organizations in calling on the international community to take action and pressure Turkey to release tens of thousands of political prisoners who have been deliberately left out of COVID-19 prison releases:

Amidst this pandemic, a disturbing pattern has emerged, where authoritarian countries are exploiting the global crisis to eliminate or inflict further suffering on political prisoners in some of the world’s worst prison conditions— the spaces most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. More than ever, we must let these human rights defenders know they are not forgotten.

On April 14, a day after the Turkish Justice Ministry announced the death of three prisoners to COVID-19,[1] parliament passed a law to release up to 90,000 prisoners, including those convicted of organized crime and attempted murder (early drafts included sex offenders).[2] The law, however, specifically excludes tens of thousands of those imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights, including human rights defenders, journalists, political leaders, academics, and lawyers targeted by Turkey’s overly broad “anti-terror” legislation.

Turkey is an epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East, with over 180,000 confirmed cases,[3] although data compiled by the New York Times indicates that Erdogan’s government is concealing a far greater number.[4] The government maintains a tight seal on the flow of information and the public health ministry is the only body providing information on the virus. According to the most recent statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey and China are the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with Turkey “having stamped out virtually all independent reporting.”[5] Since the outbreak began, at least seven journalists and editors-in-chief have been arrested—and others summoned for questioning— for reporting on COVID-19.[6]

The rapidly spreading disease presents greater concerns in Turkey’s prisons, which were already notorious for human rights abuses, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions before the pandemic. Now, the government is refusing to release political prisoners, putting their health in immediate danger.

Those left out of the release include prisoners at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19— many over the age of 60, with serious preexisting health issues like chronic lung and heart conditions, cancer, and debilitating disabilities.[7] These prisoners are often already vulnerable to disease due to the dangerous prison conditions and widespread torture in detention.

Now, physical distancing is impossible in Turkish prisons, whereas many as 28 prisoners are confined to 8-person wards or 10 prisoners to 3-person cells.[8] In Silivri Prison, as many as 39 prisoners, who all tested positive, were held in a 7 to 8-person quarantine ward.[9] Turkish authorities and guards have neglected to protect their prison population during the pandemic, failing to wear face masks or provide prisoners with cleaning supplies or face masks at all.[10] Reports have also highlighted the denial of proper medical care in prisons, including the failure to transfer prisoners to hospitals, provide adequate food, or process their medical complaints.[11]