Turkey’s prison population has been rising steadily for two decades. Official capacity has reached 234,000, but the actual number of prisoners in March was 300,000. Of these, 43,000 people are on remand awaiting trial.
While overcrowding had long been criticized, the coronavirus crisis completely changed the parameters of the discussion. Social distancing and personal hygiene are key elements of the fight against the virus, but neither are possible in the current Turkish prison environment. Cells are overcrowded, with very limited access to water. A shortage of beds sees prisoners even sleeping on the floor next to the toilets. After living for years under such conditions, many prisoners are in poor health and particularly vulnerable. Once the virus enters the prisons many deaths can be expected.
The Turkish government initially responded by banning visits, but complete isolation is not feasible. For one thing, the 67,000 prison staff are possible vectors – and themselves potential victims.
To step up its response, the government is accelerating reforms to the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures (Law 5275). Under the proposed changes, prisoners will be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence (currently two thirds), with probation increased from one to three years. Inmates over the age of 60 with chronic illnesses, and women with children younger than three will be released immediately and serve the rest of their term under house arrest. It is expected that these changes will lead to the release of almost 100,000 prisoners.
There is controversy, however, over the question of who will not benefit. There is broad public consensus that those convicted of serious crimes such as murder and sexual offences should be excluded. But the bill also excludes prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws. Under Turkey’s very broad definition of terrorism, this category also covers political activists, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders. Most prisoners even remotely linked to the Gülen movement or Kurdish political organizations have also been convicted under anti-terrorism legislation. As a result, there are estimated to be about 40,000 political prisoners, including such prominent figures as the journalist and author Ahmet Altan, the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, and the former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtaş. Civil rights organizations are calling for political prisoners to be included in the early release initiative.
While the release of up to 100,000 prisoners will certainly provide relief for those who remain, excluding political prisoners will further undermine trust in the justice system. It will also sharpen existing cultural and political polarization.
The issue has multiple aspects. In humanitarian terms it is crucial to release inmates, particularly those most vulnerable to the virus. Legally the basic principle of equality is at stake. And in the political sphere the issue draws attention to Turkey’s extremely arbitrary use of anti-terrorism charges.
Even the release of 100,000 prisoners is unlikely to be sufficient. Most of the increase in capacity from 111,000 to 234,000 was accomplished by adding beds to existing spaces (bunk beds, floor). So the prisons will still not be spacious enough to meet the standards required to address the pandemic. Further measures to decrease prison numbers are under therefore discussion, including immediate release of remand prisoners and transfer of certain inmates to house arrest with electronic tagging (including all those with documented health issues).
These immediate changes could also form the starting point for long-term improvements in the justice system. The crisis provides an opportunity to correct Turkey’s extremely arbitrary use of anti-terrorism charges. Criticisms particularly focus on two topics: the practice of lengthy pre-trial detention and more significantly, the very broad definition of terrorism, which includes non-violent political activity and threatens freedom of speech. Without a new approach, technical changes such as the current early releases, or even amnesties, will have only temporary effects. Turkey released petty criminals in 2016 to make space for the post-coup purges. Only three years later, the prisons are once again overcrowded. European policy-makers should urge Turkey to take the necessary emergency steps.
But the long-term solution is to reform the anti-terror legislation. The preparations for emergency early release have triggered a public debate on the abuse of anti-terrorism charges. European policy-makers should capitalize on this discussion and continue to press Ankara for reforms in line with the Copenhagen criteria for accession to the European Union that Turkey, at least formally, aims to meet.