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Political prisoners considered ‘dangerous inmates’ in Turkey’s jails

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Cevheri Güven

According to data released by Turkey’s Justice Ministry, a total of 1,576,566 people faced terrorism-related investigations between 2016 and 2020. Among those jailed on terror charges is a specific group referred to as “dangerous inmates” that mainly comprises political prisoners. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) characterizes the conditions of their detention as tantamount to torture. Lawyer Vural Ergül, who himself has previously been imprisoned, says that those who receive this treatment are often the people in whose cases the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is involved, either directly as a plaintiff or indirectly as a third party.

Described by the Justice Ministry as “inmates who require special supervision,” they are held in one-person cells where the windows are covered by iron bars knitted so tightly that not even a pen can get through, allowing very little daylight. The inmates have only one hour per day to go outside, to a place that can only be described as a kind of small cell surrounded by 8-meter-high walls under two layers of barbed wire.

The inmates are prohibited from even talking to other prisoners by shouting over the walls. By attempting to do so they risk a disciplinary punishment of four weeks, which primarily involves losing their right to a 10-minute weekly phone call with their families.

5-square-meter cells

Lawyer Ergül himself was incarcerated as a dangerous inmate in the past. He explains that in older and smaller facilities such as the women’s prison in Bakırköy, dangerous inmates are held in 5-square-meter cells. Whereas this should be limited to prisoners serving aggravated life sentences and those with a history of aggression behind bars, Ergül points out that since 2016 it has become a tool of political punishment.

“These people are only in pretrial detention, not convicted,” he says.

Not allowed to see another person

According to information provided by relatives of prisoners, dangerous inmates are not taken out of their cells unless absolutely necessary. When they are taken to a meeting with their lawyers, for a haircut or to the hospital, special arrangements are made so that they do not see any other prisoners. When the dangerous inmate needs to be taken out of his/her cell, the guard responsible for the cell warns the other guards in hallways that the inmate needs to go through so that those hallways are cleared. The objective is not allowing the inmate to see the face of another human being, not even during a transfer within the prison. In the event of an encounter with another inmate in a hallway, the dangerous inmate is made to wait facing a wall until the coast is clear.

S-type prisons

In Turkey prison facilities are categorized under a letter system. In the past, F-type prisons were criticized for their notoriously severe isolation. However, conditions in S-type prisons, which were designed to accommodate dangerous inmates, are less known to the public. General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses regulations do not disclose any information regarding the category.

Ergül says very little information is leaked about these prisons. “In practice the S-type has newly emerged. There are no details about it in Justice Ministry sources. We lawyers have personally obtained some information on the facilities in Antalya and Bursa. They are designed for isolation in one-person cells.”

Some of the dangerous inmates

Increasing in number on an almost daily basis, the best known dangerous inmates are the police officers who, following a 2013 graft probe that implicated four ministers of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were accused of attempting to topple the government and arrested in 2014. Police chiefs Ömer Köse and Yakup Saygılı are in the dangerous inmate category. The conditions are particularly harsh for Akın Öztürk, a former air force commander accused of being the leader of a 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan. The cells neighboring Öztürk’s are empty. Maj. Gen. Hamza Celepoğlu, jailed for intercepting trucks loaded with weapons bound for Syria, is also a dangerous inmate. So are former intelligence operative Enver Altaylı and journalist Hidayet Karaca.

Court decisions not implemented

Altaylı, who for the last five years has been held in isolation as a dangerous inmate, took his situation to court and obtained a judgment concurring with his complaint that his isolation was arbitrary and increasing his fresh air time from one hour to four. Yet the prison prosecutors refused to implement the decision.

Ergül points out that even the detention conditions of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who was sentenced to life, are more favorable than those referred to as dangerous inmates.

“I consider Öcalan a precedent as he was convicted of a crime against the territorial integrity of the state. Yet Öcalan has a TV and unlimited access to sports equipment, while dangerous inmates are not even allowed to buy radios,” he says.

“This is a case of torture that is systematic, persistent, organized and covert. It is commonplace in Turkey for those convicted of terrorism to be held in one-person cells. Yet the classification as a dangerous inmate implies further isolation, a complete separation from the outside world. As their access to fresh air has been limited to only one hour a day for the past five years, almost all of them have suffered significant health problems. It is beyond doubt that their treatment is torture.”

‘All alone 24 hours a day’

Dilara Yılmaz, the lawyer for Altaylı, describes the conditions in a mistreatment complaint submitted to a court in September 2020.

“My 77-year-old client has had to spend the last 38 months all alone 24 hours a day. He has had to spend 23 hours of each day in a 2 to 3-square-meter cell while being held for one hour in a stinky room surrounded by 8-meter-high walls without sunlight. While he is allowed to walk there for an hour a day, he is purposely left socially isolated during that time.”

Documented torture

The TİHV claimed in an investigative report that Altaylı’s situation is a case of torture. Co-drafted by forensic medicine expert Ümit Biçer and clinical psychologist Türkcan Baykal, the report made the following observation:

“In light of international standards, considering the uncertain, indefinite and solitary character of the incarceration and taking into account the individual’s age as well as physical and mental health, it is our scientific assessment that the practice amounts to a case of torture and degrading and inhumane treatment.”

Relatives of prisoners: Dangerous inmate lists are political

An inmate’s designation as a dangerous inmate is within the authority of the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses. According to law the decision can only be taken for a limited amount of time by a board of seven people. Yet there are prisoners who have been subjected to this treatment for five years. Relatives of dangerous inmates who wanted to remain anonymous point out that the simultaneous initiation of the practice across several facilities gives credence to the allegations that the inmates are blacklisted and sent to prisons through the Justice Ministry. According to relatives, the practice is a tool for political punishment.

While the number of inmates currently subjected to this treatment is unknown, lawyer Ergül estimates that it could be within the range of 500 to 1,000. Among them are military generals (some 150 of them), former police chiefs, intelligence officials, journalists and other people with links to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the 2016 attempted coup.

Cases pending before the ECtHR

Some of the dangerous inmates have in the past made headlines with allegations that they were physically assaulted behind bars. Former police chief Ömer Köse filed a complaint due to aggression by guards that he suffered in his one-person cell. Held in a Tekirdağ prison, Köse has also been deprived of heat and water, according to his lawyers’ appeals.

Several cases filed by the inmates are pending before Turkey’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

Ergül says that while the practice is likely to imply legal liability for Turkey in the future, it is a stain on the country’s human rights defenders that the issue has not been brought up so far.

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