Turkish top court set to decide the fate of Erdogan’s controversial amnesty plan

“You forgive the mafia… You don’t forgive journalists that write the truth. You don’t forgive those that want peace,” said CHP lawmaker Turan Aydogan.
Sunday 19/04/2020
The Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri near Istanbul. (Reuters)
Selective move. The Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri near Istanbul. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkey’s top court is set to decide the fate of a controversial amnesty law that seeks to free tens of thousands of prisoners to prevent a wave of coronavirus infections in the country’s jails but decrees that critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to remain behind bars.

 The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said on April 14 it would take the law to the Constitutional Court in Ankara. The move by the CHP came just hours after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its right-wing ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), pushed the bill through parliament in Ankara.

Mustafa Yeneroglu, a former AKP deputy who is now a member of the new opposition Party for Democracy and Progress (DEVA), said he expected an order by the top court to widen the scope of the bill so more prisoners can benefit from it.

“Many aspects of the reform package violate the constitution,” Yeneroglu said in a message in response to questions. “It is highly likely that the Constitutional Court will have to extend the scope of the package because of the principle of non-discrimination.”

 In its present form, the law opens the way for the temporary release of around 45,000 prisoners to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Those eligible will be released under judicial control until the end of May and the Justice Ministry will be able to extend the period three times by a maximum of two months each time, according to the law.

A similar number will be released permanently under a separate part of the legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding. All in all, the amnesty bill will reduce the number of people in Turkish prisons by a third, from more than 300,000. According to news reports, the official capacity of the country’s prisons is roughly 230,000 people.

Authorities began freeing prisoners shortly after the final vote in parliament. Among those released was Alaatin Cakici, a notorious gang leader with ties to the MHP.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said on April 13 there were 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the lung disease triggered by coronavirus, among prisoners, including three deaths, and 79 prison personnel had also tested positive.

 Around 50,000 people convicted or jailed pending trial on terrorism charges are excluded from the new law, according to an opposition parliamentarian. That number includes members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed organisation seen as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, as well as suspected supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.

Scores of journalists, intellectuals and academics have also been sentenced under Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws that enable prosecutors to demand prison sentences for the expression of views even in cases when defendants are not calling for violence.

This means that prominent government critics and activists suspected of anti-government tendencies like civil society leader Osman Kavala, author Ahmet Altan or Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas will remain in prison.

 “You lock up whoever criticises,” CHP lawmaker Turan Aydogan told AKP and MHP deputies during the debate that lasted almost a week.

 “You forgive the mafia, you forgive the gangs,” he said. But, Aydogan added, “you don’t forgive journalists that write the truth. You don’t forgive those that want peace.”

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York, said under Erdogan “different dissidents are held for different reasons”.

“Some, like Kavala, are a matter of personal pique,” Eissenstat said by e-mail. “Others, like Demirtas, come out of political calculation, while others, like the Gulenists, are seen as real threats to the regime.”

“I think, at a fundamental level, it was simply easier for the government to keep them all behind bars than try to distinguish between them.”