Turkish prisons overcrowded under Erdogan's rule

The justice ministry said it would spend much of its $2.4bn budget for 2021 on building 39 more jails

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Turkey’s prison population has more than doubled in recent years, while the government jailed political opponents, lawyers and journalists at an increasing rate.

Recent figures from Turkstat, the government's statistics agency, showed there were 291,546 prisoners at the end of 2019 compared to 120,194 a decade earlier.

Since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party came to power in 2002, there has been nearly a four-fold rise in the number of incarcerations.

Inmate numbers have risen by at least 10 per cent each year since 2013, according to Turkstat.

From the end of 2010 to the end of 2020, Turkey's prison population grew by 13 per cent,

In the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt, it jumped by more than 15 per cent as the government acted against opponents, including politicians, journalists and campaigners, as well as those it linked to the failed coup.

The figures make Turkey the world's seventh biggest jailer, behind countries such as the US, China and Russia, according to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research's World Prison Brief.

Ali Yildiz, a human rights lawyer at the Brussels-based Arrested Lawyers Initiative, said that a Turkish penal code introduced in 2005 had greatly increased prison sentences.

The use of “anti-terror laws to silence any kind of critical voice” led to growth in prison numbers.

Mr Yildiz cited research by the initiative that showed more than 220,000 people were sentenced for membership of an armed terrorist organisation between 2016 and 2019, an offence that carries a minimum sentence of six years.

"Abuse of anti-terror law is the main reason for the increase in the prison population," Mr Yildiz told The National.

While the official statistics reflected the outcome of post-2016 repression, they do not provide detail on the exact numbers of people detained on what many consider to be politically-motivated charges.

Among these inmates, the two best known are Selahattin Demirtas and Osman Kavala.

The European Court of Human Rights has demanded the release of both men.

Mr Demirtas, the former co-chairman of the Kurdish-based People's Democratic Party, has been in jail since his arrest in November 2016.

In that time he has largely been held in pretrial detention for terrorism offences relating to speeches he gave years earlier.

Businessman and philanthropist Mr Kavala was imprisoned in October 2017.

He was acquitted of trying to overthrow the government by backing nationwide protests in 2013 but other charges relating to the coup attempt were brought within hours, keeping him in prison. He is scheduled to appear before a court in May on espionage charges.

The International Commission of Jurists said both men were being kept in jail for the purpose of “silencing of human rights… stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate and utilising pretrial detention as a method of arbitrary punishment”.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently said Turkey’s systematic use of such imprisonment “may constitute crimes against humanity”.

“It is not simple miscarriage of justice but a campaign to destroy the lives of dissidents,” Mr Yildiz said.

As with other political prisoners, neither Mr Demirtas nor Mr Kavala were released as part of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Turkey’s jails.

Meanwhile, about 90,000 inmates were given conditional release in April last year, including gangster Alaattin Catici, who has close ties to Mr Erdogan's nationalist allies and was serving time for crimes including ordering the death of his ex-wife.

Despite this reduction in numbers, the Justice Ministry is continuing with a jail-building programme.

Having built 94 prisons in the last five years, taking the country's total to 355, the ministry recently announced it would spend a significant proportion of its $2.4 billion budget for 2021 on constructing 39 more.

The Civil Society in the Penal System Association (CISST), a Turkish penal reform group, said conditions for prisoners had deteriorated significantly under coronavirus measures, with inmates confined to their dormitories for nearly a year without any outside exercise or social activities.

“A year is sufficient time to take the necessary precautions and to develop the ways of socialising people by observing social distancing,” said Berivan Korkut, CISST’s advocacy co-ordinator.

“However, no serious steps have been taken in this regard. Health is limited to only physical health and ignores other needs of individuals. Unfortunately, the [beneficial] effects of activities and socialisation on the psychology of inmates aren’t taken into account.”

Prisoners’ access to healthcare has also deteriorated during the pandemic, with reduced opportunity for hospital referrals as prison authorities only send patients to hospital in life-threatening situations.

“This poses a serious danger, especially when it comes to chronic and severely ill patients,” Ms Korkut said.

Coronavirus infected inmates are generally held in quarantine within prison, where conditions are worse than among the general population with a lack of access to books, radio and telephone calls.

“In some institutions, quarantine is used like a solitary sentence and inmates may not request hospital referrals for this reason,” said Ms Korkut.

“In addition, recent complaints to CISST include restrictions on communication, an increase in violence and mistreatment.”