ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish academics, journalists and rights groups are demanding that a planned release of tens of thousands of prisoners to stem the spread of the coronavirus should not exclude inmates whose only crime, they say, has been to challenge the authorities.
President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party proposed a bill on Tuesday that would temporarily free around 45,000 prisoners. A similar number would be released permanently under a separate part of the legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.
The proposed bill does not cover those convicted of terrorism charges - potentially excluding many thousands of people caught up in a purge which followed a failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016.
“The state wants to release the ones who committed a crime against citizens while keeping the ones who questioned its authoritarianism behind bars,” the campaigners said.
“When lives are at stake, there can be no discrimination based on beliefs or ideologies,” they said in a statement signed by 281 people, including writers.
Many prisoners were “on the threshold of coronavirus catastrophe” due to cramped conditions, they said.
Turkey has arrested thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists, civil servants and members of the military it says were supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who it blames for the coup attempt. Gulen denies any involvement.
Many Kurdish activists and politicians the state says have links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are also in jail.
There are about 300,000 prisoners in Turkey’s crowded jails. The government has been working on reforms to ease pressure on the system, and expanded its proposals in light of the growing coronavirus outbreak which has infected more than 13,000 people.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, parliamentarian from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said some 50,000 people were convicted or in jail pending trial on terrorism charges, including members of the PKK and Gulen’s network, as well as journalists and others jailed on what he said were “thought crimes”.
Erdogan’s government has defended the crackdown, saying it reflected the scale of the security challenges Turkey faced.
Gergerlioglu said a former mayor from the party, who was jailed last year, was released from prison and placed on house arrest on Tuesday after being diagnosed with coronavirus.
“The coronavirus outbreak has started spreading in prisons. There are still no serious measures. If mass deaths begin in prisons, it will be too late, even if the law passes,” he said.
The Justice Ministry has said no cases have been determined in prisons and that necessary measures are being taken. Last week, prosecutors launched an investigation into Gergerlioglu after he said a prisoner had been diagnosed with the virus.
Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams