• the amnesty will not apply to journalists or those convicted of terror acts
  • In recent years, Turkey has arrested many Kurdish activists and politicians
  • Turkey’s prison system has 300,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold only 235,000



Turkey proposes to release a total of 90,000 prisoners.

Of that total, 45,000 prisoners would be temporarily released to prevent the spread of coronavirus in jails. The other 45,000 inmates would be freed permanently.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, introduced a new bill in the Turkish Parliament on Tuesday whereby, among other things, inmates above the age of 65 and women who have children under the age of six will be released under supervised procedures. In addition, some inmates who have served half of their sentences will be eligible for release.

Lawmaker Cahit Ozkan said those prisoners who are released temporarily under the coronavirus policy would be moved from prison to house arrest.

The bill also extends probation time and reduce sentences.

However, the amnesty will not apply to people who were arrested after July 1, 2016 [the date of an attempted coup d'état]; or those who were convicted of sex crimes, drug offenses, terrorism or violence against women.

More than 70,000 people -- including army and police officers, academics, teachers and civil rights defenders – who were arrested for their alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt will remain behind bars.

“Terror crimes which have been seriously harming our nation are excluded from this bill without any exception,” said Cahit Turhan, a lawmaker with the AKP.

Other political prisoners who will also not be released include 86 journalists, and a number of opposition politicians including Selahattin Demirtas, the former president of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, and Osman Kavala, a Turkish civil rights activist.

In recent years, Turkey has arrested many Kurdish activists and politicians who were alleged to have links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

The proposed legislation has been in the pipeline for a long time, but AKP decided to bring it to the forefront in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Since AKP and its MHP allies hold a majority in the 600-seat assembly, the bill is nearly assured of passing.

Turkey has almost 13,600 confirmed cases of coronavirus, while at least 168 have died.

Turkey’s prison system is overcrowded – some 300,000 inmates are locked up in facilities designed to hold only 235,000.

Human rights activists who had long been calling for the release of prisoners were outraged that journalists and other political prisoners will still be languishing in jail.

“We have been campaigning to improve the standards in prisons for a long time,” said Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party, or HDP, politician and former doctor.

“There are already many violations in terms of healthcare access, staffing levels, contagious disease, people dying from lack of treatment for their illnesses. I have submitted many questions to parliament about these cases … our justice system is broken,” he said.

Idris Sayılgan, a Kurdish journalist, was convicted on terrorism charges, spent more than three years in Mus and then Trabzon prison before being released in November 2019.

“At Mus prison I shared a cell seven steps long with 14 other people. Some cells had even more people than that. There was only one bathroom for all of us,” he said. “We had to pay for everything ourselves: toilet paper, soap, shampoo, bleach for cleaning. We only got two showers a week. It is impossible to do social distancing or practice good hygiene in such conditions. If coronavirus spreads in prisons, it will be a massacre.”

Western rights groups are also concerned.

“Terrorism may sound like the gravest of offenses, but in Turkey, the government misuses the charge for political ends,” said Human Rights Watch. “Many inmates are placed in lengthy pretrial detention or sentenced without evidence that they committed violent acts, incited violence, or provided logistical help to outlawed armed groups.”

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have been arresting and imprisoning other journalists, government critics and Kurdish politicians.

“This attitude explicitly displays the government’s intentions: common criminals will be released but the political prisoners will remain behind bars,” said Veysel Ok, co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association, a non-profit legal defense organization. “This [decision not to free political prisoners] at this time, in a way, is equivalent to a verdict of death penalty.”

Groups like International Press Institute, or IPI, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, are also asking Turkey to release jailed journalists.

“CPJ has long held the view that jailing journalists for what they publish, broadcast, or write is a violation of international law,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director.

Turkish authorities shut down many newspapers and imprisoned dozens of journalists in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.

“The independence and courage of these journalists has already cost them their liberty. Now it may cost them their lives,” said Oliver Money-Kyrle, IPI’s head of Europe advocacy and programs. “Continued imprisonment would almost certainly reduce access to urgent medical care.”