Turkey mulls releasing tens of thousands of prisoners amid COVID-19

Turkey mulls releasing tens of thousands of prisoners amid COVID-19

Talks on ongoing work for the amendment of the law on criminal execution between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the İYİ (Good) Party, started yesterday after the ruling party accomplished its internal deliberations on the matter.

As can be recalled, such an amendment had been brought to Turkey’s agenda by the AKP’s main political ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a couple of years ago. MHP officials have long been pressing on the AKP to change the law in a way to reduce the term of the imprisonment of those who were sentenced for ordinary crimes.

Although it was aware that Turkish prisons were overcrowded as a result of massive operations against the members of FETÖ in the aftermath of July 2016 coup attempt, the AKP was still not in favor of such a move on grounds that a good portion of the society did not endorse releasing tens of thousands of criminals.

There are around 300,000 prisoners in 375 correction houses across the country, much higher than the capacity. Human rights organizations have long been drawing attention to the deteriorating conditions in prisons and these concerns have now been further increased due to the coronavirus. This new situation has forced the government to tackle the problem in a way to ameliorate the conditions in the prisons by the release of tens of thousands of prisoners.

A draft penned by the AKP suggests a prisoner serving half of his or her term of imprisonment will be released in line with a change on the rules of release on probation which normally applies for those who serve two thirds in prison. This proportion will be reduced from three fourth to two thirds for drug-related crimes and sex offenses. Willful homicide, terror and organized crimes are kept exempted from the amendment.

It’s estimated that around 70,000 to 100,000 prisoners will be released should the amendment be approved in parliament.

It’s, of course, the government’s responsibility to take care of the health and well-being of all citizens, including the prisoners. Emptying the prisons is one way but a more structural measure should be implemented for both the safety of the prisons and a well-functioning justice system.

Repairing the problems stemming from long detention periods, the prolongation of legal proceedings would be one of the best ways to ease the conditions of the prisons as well as for dispensing justice in an adequate way. Structural response to the problem should also deal with a vague description of terror crimes that have been frequently applied to opposition political figures, academics and journalists.

Abiding by the rulings of the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would be a better way to fix said structural problems in Turkey.

It’s understood that the CHP will give conditional support to the release of ordinary criminals. The CHP’s proposals include the release of thought criminals, including journalists and politicians.

It will be difficult for the government to explain why journalists like Barış Terkoğlu, Barış Pehlivan and others, civil society activist Osman Kavala and others, and politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş and others are still kept in prison while criminals will be able to freely walk away.

The government’s response to the CHP’s proposals will be important in terms of creating a new political climate in Turkey, especially at a time when solidarity and unity need to prevail in the face of a growing virus threat.

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