Turkish academics, journalists and rights groups are demanding that a planned release of tens of thousands of prisoners to stem the spread of the coronavirus should not exclude inmates whose only crime, they say, has been to challenge the authorities, Reuters reported.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposed a bill on Tuesday that would temporarily free around 45,000 prisoners. A similar number would be released permanently under a separate part of the legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.
The proposed bill does not cover those convicted of terrorism, potentially excluding many thousands of people caught up in a purge that followed a failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016.
“The state wants to release people who committed crimes against citizens while keeping those who questioned its authoritarianism behind bars,” the rights group said.
“When lives are at stake, there can be no discrimination based on beliefs or ideologies,” they said in a statement signed by 281 people.
Many prisoners were “on the threshold of coronavirus catastrophe” due to cramped conditions, they said.
Turkey has arrested thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists, civil servants and members of the military it says were supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who it blames for the coup attempt. Gülen denies any involvement.
Many Kurdish activists and politicians the state says have links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are also in jail.
There are about 300,000 prisoners in Turkey’s overcrowded jails. The government has been working on reforms to ease pressure on the system and expanded its proposals in light of the growing coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 13,000 people in Turkey.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a parliamentarian from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said some 50,000 people were convicted or in pretrial detention on terrorism charges, including members of the PKK and Gülen’s network as well as journalists and others jailed on what he said were “thought crimes.”
Erdoğan’s government has defended the crackdown, saying it reflects the scale of the security challenges Turkey faces.
Gergerlioğlu said a former mayor from the party, who was jailed last year, was released from prison and placed on house arrest on Tuesday after being diagnosed with coronavirus. “The coronavirus outbreak has started spreading in prisons. There are still no serious measures. If mass deaths begin in prisons, it will be too late, even if the law passes,” he said.
The Justice Ministry has said no cases have been determined in prisons and that necessary measures are being taken. Last week, prosecutors launched an investigation into Gergerlioğlu after he said a prisoner had been diagnosed with the virus.