Turkey’s political prisoners face a potential Covid-19 death sentence
Overcrowded, poorly cleaned, and with a history of inadequate medical care that has left a legacy of damaged health, Turkish prisons can become a coronavirus hothouse, turning prison sentences to death sentences and providing a source of infection to wider society. The Turkish Government has answered the international call to let out prisoners in response to the pandemic, with a law that has released up to 90,000 people to parole or house arrest. But this move has drawn widespread condemnation from supporters of human rights by its purposeful exclusion of all political prisoners. It even excludes the estimated 43,000 detained on remand awaiting trial.
After these releases, Turkey’s prisons will still incarcerate around 200,000 people. Successive Turkish governments have imprisoned their opponents, but recent years have seen a huge growth of political arrests, especially since the failed coup attempt in 2016. This has provided an excuse for a clamp down on everyone that Erdogan wishes to silence, especially democrats, leftists and (as always) Kurdish activists. When the accused appear in court they can have little expectation of a fair trial. Critical judges have themselves been arrested, along with journalists, human rights activists, civil servants, and academics. Sentences are extraordinarily long, and even before they reach the sentencing stage, prisoners can expect to have spent years in pre-trial detention.
Among the political prisoners are thousands of members and activists of the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including MPs and many of the elected mayors who were removed from their posts by the authoritarian central government, as well as the party’s former co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş has a heart condition and lung problems, leaving him at high risk if he is exposed to the coronavirus, but calls for his release have been refused. The HDP follows a scrupulously constitutional path, but that doesn’t prevent them from being accused of assisting the outlawed PKK – the standard ‘terrorist’ charge levelled at all politically active Kurds. Demirtaş, a hugely popular progressive leader, has been in prison since his arrest in November 2016. He faces a long list of charges and a demand from the state prosecutor that he be given a sentence of over 140 years. Two years after his arrest, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that such a prolonged detention awaiting trial was a deliberate political act calculated to restrict his ability to carry out his political role, and consequently in contravention of Human Rights law, but Turkey dismissed their argument. When Demirtaş collapsed in his cell with a heart problem last December it took a week before the authorities agreed to take him to hospital.
While Demirtaş has been left to risk his life in prison, those who have been released include not only common criminals, but the notorious mafia boss and long-time member of the fascist Grey Wolves, Alaattin Cakici. Cakici’s murder victims include his former wife, as well as leftists and Kurds. But his friends include Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far right MHP, which provides vital support to Erdogan’s AKP government. Bahceli has been lobbying for Cakici’s release since 2018, and COVID-19 provided the opportunity.
As in other places, the coronavirus has opened the door to increased authoritarianism – on top of an already dire record. Critics of government responses to the virus can expect no mercy, and there is a fear that the spaces vacated by prisoner releases, will soon be filled. Even without the additional restrictions of social distancing, protest in Turkey has been made very difficult. When, back in March, HDP MP, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, referred on social media to cases of COVID-19 in a prison, he was investigated by Ankara’s Chief Prosecutor for spreading panic. At the same time, 410 people were arrested for their critical posts on social media, and accused of ‘attempting to stir unrest’. Journalists have been detained for their COVID-19 stories, and people are increasingly self-censoring. Prisoners may seem to have nothing to lose but their chains, however, speaking about their conditions to relations has resulted in sanctions. Despite this, the news that the parliament’s Justice Committee had approved the discriminatory release law provoked a riot in Batman Prison. Kurdish political prisoners have a proud history of protest, so when the virus begins to kill, we may see more actions. The one concession made to those who have dared to criticise the bill (including the main opposition party, the CHP) is a restriction put on the release of sex offenders and run-of-the-mill murderers, which had not been considered necessary in initial plans – though this doesn’t prevent the release of many violent men who are already threatening their former wives.
Even practical actions by opposition politicians are being thwarted and punished. The CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara organised fund raising to help the poor of their cities who are suffering as a result of the pandemic, but the central government announced their own fund-raising campaign and closed down the municipal funds, taking over the money. The mayors are now the subject of criminal investigations. In Eskisehir municipal soup kitchens have been closed down. The AKP, and their MHP friends, are attempting to ensure that they have an exclusive monopoly over the giving of aid.
In the Kurdish areas, 46 out of the 65 municipalities won by the HDP in the election a year ago have since seen their elected mayors replaced by a ‘trustee’ appointed by central government. While the remaining elected mayors are doing what they can, within the imposed limits, to work with local people in organising to prevent the spread of the virus, the trustees have no local connections. Decades of neglect from central government have kept these areas poor, with most people dependent on their daily wage. Despite government promises of help for all who need it, most central aid, which comes with government propaganda leaflets, is directed towards AKP supporters, and not to those known to support the HDP.
And all the time, while the world is distracted, Turkey is continuing its aggression against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. They keep violating the ceasefire they signed up to in Northern Syria, and they have repeatedly cut off the water supply to the Hesekê region, which constitutes a war crime even without the additional needs for cleaning brought about by the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Turkish planes targeted the Maxmur refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose inhabitants follow the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, and killed three women.
Little of all this seems to have dented Turkey’s international image. True, there was disapproval when the government brought in a 48-hour curfew at two hours’ notice, which prompted predictable last-minute crowding in the shops, but the Interior Minister has taken the flack for that. (That his proffered resignation was not accepted is an indication of the influence of the MHP over internal AKP power struggles, as the minster is sympathetic to the right-wing nationalist MHP agenda.) The official, highly questionable, COVID-19 death statistics seem to be taken at face value, along with government claims of support for those in need – and Turkey even managed some cynical soft diplomacy. Well publicised deliveries of medical aid, including masks and medical gowns, have been sent to the UK and other European nations. The UK Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, thanked the Turkish Foreign minister, describing the action as ‘an indication of strong friendship’ between the UK and Turkey.
With history moving so fast, and so much going on just in our own corner of the world, it can be difficult to keep pace with what is happening elsewhere, but if more people are able to express public criticism of the Turkish regime it becomes that little bit harder for Turkey to get away with murder. Protests about the discrimination against political prisoners, prison conditions, and grave abuse of the justice system more generally, have been made by Human Rights organisations, the EU, and international lawyers, but the more organisations and political representatives that can be persuaded to make a public stand, the better. And when we can again begin to plan a holiday, we can help shape the post-COVID world by boycotting travel to Turkey.
Başak Demirtaş gives a public message on behalf of her husband and the other political prisoners: https://twitter.com/HDPinUSA/status/1242068918920978434?s=20