Turkey’s political prisoners at risk from COVID-19

April 16, 2020
Political prisoners fear they effectively have a death sentence.

About 50,000 political prisoners fear they are facing effective death sentences as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through Turkey's jails. While the government has decided to release a third of the country's 300,000 prisoners to avert a disaster, political prisoners will not be considered for release.

Turkey has the ninth-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world. Its 69,392 officially confirmed cases (as of April 15) place Turkey just behind Iran, which it threatens to overtake soon.

There have been 1518 deaths from COVID-19 but the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) has claimed that these official figures understate the real death toll.

The prison population has swelled in recent years because of mass arrests of teachers, journalists, lawyers, public servants and opposition politicians by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's dictatorial government. 

Prisoners are forced to live in poor and cramped conditions. After first denying that the pandemic had entered the prison system, the government admitted on April 13 that 17 prisoners had tested positive to the coronavirus and three of them had died.

Among the political prisoners excluded from special release is Selahattin Demirtas, former head of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). His lawyer warned that Demirtas is at high risk from COVID-19 because he has high blood pressure and has undergone surgery for respiratory problems.

The HDP and 10 other opposition parties have issued a joint statement protesting this gross discrimination against political prisoners. The statement said the prisoners are effectively "condemned to death".

"Thieves, corrupt people, the mafia, drug dealers, people who commit violence against women, rape and abuse children can benefit from the law," said the statement.

“On the other hand, those who have exercised their right to freedom of thought and expression are excluded."

The United Nations, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and its Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs, the European Parliament and the European associations of judges, along with leading international human rights organisations have warned the Turkish government about the dangers of leaving political prisoners locked up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Federation of Democratic Kurdish Society-Australia called on concerned groups and individuals to urgently contact the Turkish government and call for an end to the discrimination against political prisoners, and for candidates for early release to be selected on the basis of medical need and not on the basis of political affiliation.

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