Turkey’s political prisoners say they are fearful of the spread of coronavirus as parliament on Tuesday approved the release of tens of thousands of inmates, but excluded those who are held under the country’s controversial anti-terrorism laws.
"If the virus enters prison, it will spread there like a forest fire," writer and journalist Ahmet Altan told The National in a written exchange.
The well-known intellectual and critic of President Recep Tayipp Erdogan was released from prison late last year after serving three years in pre-trial detention on charges of “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organisation”. A week later, he was returned to prison on another terrorism charge.
Almost 300,000 people are imprisoned in Turkey out of a national population of 82 million - one of the highest ratios in the world. The figure has increased considerably over the past five years with the incarceration of tens of thousands of political prisoners, most of them under terrorism charges.
Critics say Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws are vague and overly-broad, and frequently used to crackdown on dissent.
The new law proposes the release of about 90,000 inmates as part of efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. However, it does not apply to those arrested on charges of terrorism, or journalists, politicians and lawyers in pre-trial detention.
It also excludes those convicted of sex crimes and drug trafficking.
Friends and family of Altan, who is imprisoned in Silivri, west of Istanbul, say he is overcome by worry over the virus. They are also prohibited from seeing him under virus regulations.
"We continue to talk to each other by phone, 10 minutes a week," said his brother Mehmet Altan, who is a journalist and economics professor who was also previously jailed on similar charges, but released in June 2018.
At 70 years old, Altan is comfortably above the age limit of 65 that the country has deemed most at risk from coronavirus, and outside of prison those in this age group are under strict lockdown measures.
Mehmet Yeter, also 70, was the first person known to have died from the coronavirus in a Turkish prison. Serving a three-year sentence for drug trafficking in Bafra in northern Turkey, he died on March 23.
His funeral was held without his family, who only learnt of Yeter’s death when one of his fellow prisoners called his son, the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet reported.
“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,” said Faruk Ömer Gergerlioglu, a parliamentary deputy from the the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) and a member of parliament’s human rights inquiry committee.
Fear among prisoners has stoked unrest, with a riot breaking out in Batman prison because of worries over the of Covid-19 an April 4.
Turkey has reported more 60,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths so far, with the numbers for both increasing rapidly. Authorities imposed a two-day lockdown in cities across the country on April 11 and 12 after reporting nearly 5,000 new infections in one day.
More than 337,000 terrosrism cases have been filed in the past six years, many against journalists, lawyers and political opponents, according to studies done by The Arrested Lawyers Initiative based on records from the Ministry of Justice.
Ali Yildiz, president of the initiative, said prison occupancy rates range from 130 to 153 per cent of intended capacity.
Businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, 62, was imprisoned in Silivri for 900 days on terrorism charges before being acquitted by consitutional court in February, and then rearrested hours later. His lawyer, Ilkan Koyuncu, said visits have become very hard due to coronavirus, and relatives have also decided to reduce the frequency of their visits.
The situation is even more difficult for many Kurdish activists accused of links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated a terrorist organisation.
About 4,000 members of the pro-Kurdish HDP are currently in prison for their alleged ties to the rebels, said Hisyar Ozsoy, an HDP member of parliament from the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir. The best known of these political prisoners is the party’s former leader and 2016 presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, who has been detained since November 2016 in Edirne.
Demirtas was found unconscious after he fainted in his cell in December and received medical help. His family live 1,700 kilometres away and his lawyer Ramazan Demir also said he no longer has access to him due to the pandemic.
Altan believes that President Erdogan’s AKP will not give up its tough policies.
"Fearful populations generally look for strong leaders, but this time it's different. People are afraid of death for themselves and their loved ones. They seek compassion, warmth and security,” he said.
“Remember that the people you call on your deathbed are empathetic men of faith, not bullying politicians.”