Amnesty International and 26 other rights groups and civil society organizations from Turkey and around the world on Monday released a joint statement calling for the release of Turkey’s political prisoners, particularly those with a high risk of complications due to COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Overcrowding and unsanitary facilities already pose a serious health threat to Turkey’s prison population of nearly 300,000 prisoners and about tens of thousands of prison staff,” the statement read. “That will only be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.”
“However, we remain concerned that journalists, human rights defenders and others imprisoned for simply exercising their rights, and other who should be released, will remain behind bars in the package of measures as currently conceived by the government.”
Reports in the Turkish media last week said the government was working on a bill allowing the release of up to 100,000 prisoners. Pro-government outlets underlined, however, that people imprisoned for “terrorism” would be excluded from the legislation.
“In Turkey, anti-terrorism legislation is vague and widely abused in trumped up cases against journalists, opposition political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders and others expressing dissenting opinions,” the statement said.
“As we have documented in the large number of trials we have monitored, many are held in lengthy pre-trial detention and many are convicted of terrorism-related crimes simply for expressing dissenting opinion, without evidence that they ever incited or resorted to violence or assisted illegal organizations.”
“This includes high profile journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, and businessman and civil society figure Osman Kavala, in addition to many more academics, rights defenders and journalists. Demirtaş has previously reported heart-related health problems in prison, and both Altan and Kavala are over 60 years old meaning they could be at increased risk from Covid-19. These people should not be detained at all, excluding them from release would only compound the serious violations they have already suffered.”
In addition to Amnesty, signatories included ARTICLE 19, Punto24, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), English PEN, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Freedom House, German PEN, the International Press Institute (IPI), IFEX and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), among others.
The statement echoed previous calls on the Turkish government by rights defenders to relieve the overcrowded prisons and protect the lives of prisoners who are at high risk of infection.