Disturbing news are coming out of the Silivri prison in İstanbul, Turkey. According to the İstanbul Bakirkoy Chief Public Prosecutor, the COVID-19 testing for at least 42 inmates are positive. Due to the epidemic danger, prison officials emptied three wards and turned them into coronavirus wards. Family members of inmates are extremely worried and appeal for help from the international community.
Amid the global COVID-19 crisis, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, Dr. Agnes Callamard, urged governments to release all prisoners who are held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without adequate access to health care and protection measures. Dr. Callamard called unsanitary conditions as “death sentence” and humanitarian crisis”.
Conditions in Turkish prisons are deeply worrying. Pre-existing structural problems, such as chronic overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, coupled with the lack of proper access to healthcare have now enabled the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the notorious Silivri Prison in İstanbul, where in November 2019 a Parliamentary Investigation Committee found that 22,781 inmates were deprived of their liberty, despite its official capacity of 11,000. Latest reports from the prison indicate that all inmates in wards B10 and B12 have tested positive for COVID-19.
Given the lack of transparency from the Turkish authorities, family members of the inmates have now launched desperate appeals to help save the lives of their loved ones at risk of death in the Silivri Prison in İstanbul. The political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, in particular sick or terminally sick inmates, persons with disabilities, children, women and older persons arbitrarily are deprived of their liberty.
Turkey’s human rights record has constantly deteriorated since the attempted coup of July 2016. The prison population in particular dramatically increased following the July 2016 coup attempt, with the government misusing counterterrorism laws to suppress any form of dissent, real or not. Officials statistics from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TURKSTAT) indicate that since 2014 prison population increased by approximately 126,000; to a total population of 270,000 inmates and detainees by mid-2019. Prison overcrowding remains a significant problem and prison conditions are very poor. Those deprived of their liberty in Turkey, in particular individuals charged or convicted on terror offenses in the last 3.5 years are at a disproportionately high risk of being impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, since they are denied medical treatment, and lack adequate health care and food supplies, adequate access to potable water, heating, ventilation, and lighting.
On March 20, 2020, Turkey’s ruling party (AKP) announced plans to enact a bill which provides for the release of “as many prisoners as possible” from prisons, amid the coronavirus outbreak. The proposed bill, however, excludes tens of thousands of civil servants, journalists, human rights defenders, judges and prosecutors charged or convicted on bogus terror-related offenses, following unfair trials in the aftermath of the attempted coup of July 2016.
The international community should urge the government of Turkey to urgently address the situation, ensure preventive and other health care for all persons deprived of their liberty in the Silivri Prison, and explore options for the release of the sick or terminally sick inmates, persons with disabilities, children, women and older persons. The Government of Turkey must further, ensure human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of movement, peaceful assembly, right to privacy, or any other security measures taken in the context of the coronavirus response, and should not be an excuse to quash political or other dissent.
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 See also the OHCHR brief on “COVID-19 and Protection of right to life in places of detention,” available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Executions/HumanRightsDispatch_2_PlacesofDetention.pdf