Ankara’s ‘deal with angel of death’ seen unfair to detained critics amid coronavirus crisis

Opposition officials say the amnesty plan is unfair because it would give freedom to thieves and even mobsters while keeping non-violent government critics behind bars.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Turkish soldiers stand guard outside a courtroom at the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri near Istanbul, Turkey. (Reuters)
Double jeopardy. Turkish soldiers stand guard outside a courtroom at the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri near Istanbul, Turkey. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - The Turkish government is coming under fire over a controversial plan to exclude jailed critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from an amnesty aimed at protecting prisoners from the coronavirus, in a move that critics call a “pact with the angel of death.”

After four days of debate in parliament in Ankara the assembly decided on April 10 to extend the session by another three days through April 13, lawmakers said. Passage of the draft should be assured by the majority of seats held in the assembly by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but the debate of the bill, which consisted of 70 different changes to existing laws, moved slower than expected because of opposition resistance.

 The government argues the amnesty bill complies with the rule of law but critics say Erdogan is using the threat posed by the virus to silence dissidents in politics, media and civil society.

 According to the AKP, the amnesty will free about 90,000 of the 300,000 inmates in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons that were built for a total of 230,000 people. Under the bill, some prisoners will have parts of their sentences waived and freed while others, including pregnant women and old or sick inmates, will be placed under house arrest.

Turkey, which registered its first coronavirus case on March 11, is reporting more than 42,000 infections and over 900 deaths. The number of infections doubles roughly every five days, and experts have told Turkish media that the worst of the epidemic is still weeks away.

 The government has closed schools and universities, banned communal prayers, curtailed domestic and international travel and decreed a lockdown for people under 20 years and over 65 years of age. But Erdogan has resisted calls by local officials for blanket curfews because he wants to limit the damage to the economy.

 Government and opposition agree in principle that something must be done to prevent prisons from becoming hotbeds of infection because of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

 But opposition officials, human rights groups and European politicians say the amnesty plan is unfair because it would give freedom to thieves and even mobsters while keeping non-violent government critics such as journalists, writers and civil society leaders behind bars.

 Veysel Ok, an Istanbul lawyer specialising in freedom of expression cases, said courts had the power to release suspects from pre-trial detention even without a change of the law. “The constitution says this can be done to avert danger,” Ok said by telephone.

 “But there is a problem with judicial independence,” Ok added. “The judiciary does not want to do this without a wink from the government.”

 The opposition and the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, say the Turkish judiciary has come under the influence of the government.

 The government bill says convicted murderers, sex offenders, drug dealers and terrorists must not benefit from the amnesty. Under Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws, criticism and comments can be prosecuted as illegal acts of support for a terrorist organisation even if they do not include calls for violence.

 Ahmet Altan, a 70-year-old writer who has been in jail since 2016 despite calls by the European Court of Human Rights to set him free, is one of the prominent government critics who are set to remain in prison. Altan, a former editor of a newspaper critical of the government, is accused of having supported the 2016 coup attempt by sending “subliminal” messages to the coup plotters in a TV chat show.

 “To leave people who are behind bars for expressing their ideas exposed to corona is like making a deal with the angel of death,” Mehmet Altan, brother of Ahmet Altan, said in a video message published by the Kronos news website.

 Other well-known government foes in prison that are excluded from the amnesty are Selahattin Demirtas, a former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and civil society figure Osman Kavala.

 Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, an HDP lawmaker, said many people were likely to die in prison because of the coronavirus. “If there will be no releases, prisons will turn into scenes of #MASSACRES!” Gergerlioglu tweeted.

 Claudia Roth, a deputy speaker of Germany’s parliament, and fellow Green Party member Cem Ozdemir, also slammed Erdogan’s plans. “President Erdogan is using the pandemic in a shameful way to silence critics in his own country,” they said in a statement.

 The Council of Europe called on member states Turkey and Spain to include political prisoners in amnesty plans triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

 Boriss Cilevics, the human rights rapporteur of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, said in a statement on April 2 he welcomed the intention by member states to release non-violent prison inmates.

 “Prisoners with political backgrounds, such as the Catalan politicians convicted for their role in the unconstitutional referendum in October 2017, or the Turkish parliamentarians, mayors and other politicians imprisoned for speeches made in the exercise of their mandate, should certainly benefit from such measures,” Cilevics said.