‘Human tragedy’ unfolding in Turkish prisons, says jailed Kurdish leader

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The pro-Kurdish Peoples's Democratic Party's (HDP) former leader Selahattin Demirtaş sits in prison in Edirne on May 4, 2018. Demirtas, who has been behind bars since November 2016, is in prison accused of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels and is facing a 142-year sentence on charges of leading a terror organization. / HANDOUT / AFP PHOTO / HDP

Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned former chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), described the current situation in Turkey’s prisons as a “human tragedy” in an interview published on Monday.

Ruşen Çakır, an independent Turkish journalist, conducted an interview with the jailed politician in which he answered questions on the current political landscape as well as his personal situation.

Responding to a question on the recent denial of a visit by his daughters, Demirtaş said: “A human tragedy is taking place all over the country’s prisons. It wouldn’t be right for me to make a big deal out of not being able to see both my daughters at the same time while there are serious issues in prisons, ranging from death to torture and from isolation to health problems.”

The country’s penal facilities house over 200,000 inmates according to official figures. 

The parliament in April passed a bill to curb the spread of COVID-19 in jails, which ensured the release of a third of prisoners, bringing the total number of inmates down from 300,000. 

Rights groups criticized the piece of legislation for excluding political prisoners.

Tens of thousands are held behind bars over alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by cleric Fethullah Gülen that Turkey deems a terrorist organization and accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, as well as due to alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. 

Demirtaş was arrested over links to the PKK in November 2016 and has been in prison ever since.

The European Court of Human Rights on Nov. 20, 2018 ruled that Demirtaş’s pre-trial detention had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, calling for his release.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his response to the decision that the European court’s rulings did not bind Turkey.

Following Erdoğan’s remarks, local courts rejected several applications for Demirtaş’s release filed by his lawyers.

The Strasbourg court further found for the first time in a case originating from Turkey a violation of Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits having a hidden agenda in restricting rights guaranteed by the convention. Under Article 18 the Strasbourg court described Demirtaş’s arrest as “politically motivated” and found a dominant ulterior purpose behind his continued pre-trial detention.

“Turkey has detained, prosecuted, and convicted thousands of civil servants, lawyers, politicians, activists, and journalists for alleged links to these groups, although there is no evidence they committed violent crimes, incited violence, or provided logistical support to outlawed armed groups,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) had said in a statement regarding the proposed legislation.

“The blanket terrorism exclusion in the draft law covers all prisoners convicted for terrorism offenses, makes no mention of detainees in detention before or during trial for terrorism offenses, and makes no allowance for those in either group with chronic medical conditions for whom COVID-19 poses a lethal risk,” the HRW statement said.

According to the Human Rights Association (IHD), there are currently 1,605 sick prisoners in Turkish prisons, 604 of whom are critically ill.

According to a CNN report citing findings by a nonpartisan US organization, incarcerated people are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than those on the outside.

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