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Commentary: Being a prisoner in Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic  

This post was written by Aylin Kocaman, TV presenter and interfaith activist from Turkey.

With the arrival of COVİD-19 in Turkey in early March, quarantine measures were implemented as a result. The number of positive cases quickly escalated, and curfews and restrictions were introduced, much like the rest of the world. People were no longer able to see their loved ones, their friends, or go to work as usual. But there’s no doubt that one group suffered the most during this time: prisoners. 

In one-month, Turkish prisons became the new target of the virus. In a short amount of time, 82 inmates in Silivri prison[1], and 120[2] inmates in prisons across Turkey tested positive and a couple of days later, four of them lost their lives. [3]

The lives of the people in prison are at risk. They have to live with this danger while confined in an enclosed area without being able to protect themselves. Especially considering that there is a serious shortage of staff and most importantly doctors in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, it goes without saying that once one person contracts the virus, it will spread to the rest of the prison in no time. Indeed, this is what happened in Buca and Silivri prisons of Turkey. It is also known that people are tested only after positive cases are confirmed. This means that there are a number of positive cases among the staff and the prisoners that go unrecorded.

In addition to this life-risking situation, there are other consequences of the virus that should be known. From February until 16 June, no trials were held in Turkey and when they finally resumed on June 16, one court clerk tested positive leading to the quarantine of all the judges and court staff. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely or reasonable to resume trials while the cases of COVID-19 are still on the rise. However, one dire consequence of this trial-less period is the continued detention of those people who were imprisoned pending trial. According to the official rhetoric, they are kept imprisoned because “their statements could not be taken.” In other words, even though they could be easily released on parole, they are still kept imprisoned. 

A new law on execution of sentences was passed recently in the Turkish parliament and as a result, 90,000 people were released. Interestingly, all the people released were convicts.[4] In other words, only people that had committed crimes benefited from this new law. Strangely, those people about whom it hadn’t been decided whether they were guilty or not and were awaiting trial or had pending trials weren’t released. It should be noted that statistically 50% of people who are detained in Turkey are later proven innocent and released. Therefore, it is obvious that the new law should also cover detainees who are held pending trial.

With the new law some crimes will no longer be punished, or the punishment will not translate to imprisonment. However, currently, there are people in prison for crimes which would now not lead to imprisonment had they not been prisoners already. Yet, they are not released because their trials have been postponed.

It is inconceivable that while thousands of convicts were pardoned and released, those people who should be considered innocent until proven guilty are kept in prison on the grounds that their statements were not taken. Currently some of the detainees have been waiting for 2-3 years in prison for their indictments to be prepared or their trials to begin. Yet even during this pandemic, they were not released. Detention is a legal precaution but at the moment in our country, it has turned into a punishment. Although completely unnecessary, detainees are forced to face this scary and inhumane situation in a confined space.

In addition, after the passing of the said law and the release of the convicts that cooked food for the prisons across Turkey, the food service almost stopped and the quality of the food sharply declined. During this time, prisoners were given unhealthy, packaged foods that had no nutritional value. In other words, the prisoners were not able to eat properly at the time when the risk of contracting the virus was at its highest. In addition, meat completely ran out in prison commissaries during this time. For a long time, prisoners were not sold drinking water, which needless to say, is extremely dangerous during a pandemic. Similarly, fresh fruits and vegetables were not sold regularly. A prisoner can buy water and food only from the prison commissary, so when these channels are closed, there is nothing a prisoner can do.

In addition to putting their lives at risk, prisoners faced new restrictions during this time. For example, they weren’t allowed to have their families visit them. As a result, the detainees in prison haven’t seen their families for the past 3 ½ months. The Ministry of Justice said that the prisoners would be able to make video calls to their families, but this is still yet to be done. Weekly phone calls were increased to 20 minutes from the former 10 minutes, but the prisoners can call their families only once a week and use the 20-minutes on a single day. This means that the new increase in phone call duration did not really make a change, because the prisoners can only communicate with their families once a week, just as before.

Due to the pandemic, the lawyer meetings are now held behind glass partitions and through handsets. It must be added that lawyer meeting rooms are very limited. For example, there are only six rooms in Silivri 9th prison, which houses 500 prisoners. This number was later reduced to 3 rooms.

Most of the time the lawyers must wait outside the prison all day before being able to see their clients. Sometimes they leave without even seeing them. Under normal circumstances a detainee has the right to see two or three lawyers at the same time.  But under the current circumstances, these meetings are done through handsets, which makes it impossible to talk to more than one lawyer at a time. Furthermore, the meetings are kept short and are therefore ineffective. This makes it impossible for the detainee and the lawyer to write a petition together or for a lawyer to read an important document.

During the pandemic, our government introduced curfews that continued for four or five days almost every week, which covered lawyers as well. However, the right to defense is one of the most basic human rights of a detainee. During the curfews, bakeries, supermarkets and pharmacists were given permission to remain open but lawyers were not permitted to make visits to see their clients. As a result, detainees went for days without seeing their lawyer and thus without getting legal help, or without sending a message to their families. They are left confined in their cells, completely isolated from the rest of the world while facing the risk of contracting a life-threatening disease.

As explained before, legal trials completely stopped in Turkey during the pandemic. Detainees spent all these months in prison for no apparent reason and without being able to defend themselves. Most of the time the panel of judges did not even read the petitions submitted to them during this time. The petitions are left with the court clerk and were not processed by the judges.

Since Turkey is a party to the European Council, applications from Turkey regarding violations of law can be submitted to the ECHR. One of my friends is about to complete his application to the European Court of Human Rights, especially with regards to the violations of law that took place particularly during custody. 

I am one of those people that were detained during the police operation made against Adnan Oktar and his friends. I spent 20 months in prison before being released last February, only to remain under house arrest. 78 people are still in prison as part of this case. Even though imprisonment has lasted close to 2 years in Silivri prison, which by the way saw the highest number of COVID-19 cases, these individuals have not stood trial since February and have not been released. This current situation, which we don’t wish to see in political cases in Turkey but frequently do, persists despite the pandemic.

As someone familiar with prison conditions, I know what it’s like to be unable to take any precautions to protect oneself. I know what it means to not to be able to have access to food, medication, a doctor, lawyers, to suffer from violation of rights and to lose the right to talk to or see one’s family. During this pandemic, people in prison are completely deprived of their rights. According to laws, a convicted person should remain in prison. But it is incomprehensible why people who are not convicted, and who are detained pending trial, are still kept in prison at a time like this. These people are deprived of their rights and could easily be released on parole. Yet, their lives are inexplicably risked like this, while “convicts” are released. 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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