When you are visiting Washington looking for $6 billion for the next five years to refurbish your military -- and with the Pentagon saying you deserve every nickel of it -- other issues tend to get lost. Like which political prisoners are languishing in jail, and which ones are not.

Turgut Ozal, the prime minister of Turkey, paid a state visit to the Reagan administration this week. He was well prepared to explain why he and the Pentagon believe the Turkish government needs more weapons and military might to keep vigilant against the bordering Soviet Union. On the seemingly lesser matter of human beings who are suffering in prison for what they think, Ozal had a poor command of the facts.

In a group interview, I asked him about the continued imprisonment of some members of the Turkish Peace Association. This is the nonviolent group of journalists, artists, former diplomats and peace activists that had 23 of its members imprisoned by a military court in the summer of 1983 for sentences of up to eight years. Five of the group have been released, but the others remain in jail. Ozal insisted they were all out.

Someone who knows otherwise is Nurhan Katircioglu, 27, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her mother, Reha Isvan, a peace worker and the wife of the former mayor of Istanbul, has been in a military prison for 18 months. Over the phone, Mrs. Isvan's daughter said it would be heartening news if the Turkish prime minister were right and her mother finally were free of her unjust imprisonment. But she is not.

Ozal was incorrect a second time. He spoke of the recent visit of Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter, two authors who went to Turkey in mid-March on behalf of International PEN, a group that defends human rights of artists and writers. Pinter, in an Istanbul press conference at the end of a five- day visit, said, "Our conclusion is that torture, despite the protestations and denials, is in fact widespread and systematic in military prisons and police stations in Turkey."

Ozal gave a bad review to the two playwrights. He said that they spoke with only four or five "extreme leftists." In fact, Miller and Pinter met with more than 100 Turkish citizens -- left, right and center. The martial law authorities -- with martial law in force in Istanbul and Ankara, the country's most populous cities -- thought even less of Miller and Pinter's findings. The news was censored from the Turkish press.

Ozal's two mistakes may appear as small issues when compared with the larger problems that he faces: Cyprus, the continuing Armenian terrorism against Turkey's diplomats, reviving an economy in which per-capita income remains at about $1,000 a year, and trying to create a stable free-market economy. Ozal is a personally gracious man who deserves large credit for trying to be a conciliator. He said that censoring Miller and Pinter was a mistake, and he would not have approved the decision had he been in the country at the time.

That is the heart of the problem. One human rights group after another -- Amnesty International, the U.S. Helsinki Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, International PEN -- has recently sent delegations to Turkey and reached the same conclusion: despite the integrity and democratic aspirations of people such as Ozal, the power of the military and its martial law remains.

It says a lot that the martial law command could order the censoring of the Miller-Pinter press conference. Ozal himself suggested it was a stupid decision. He said that the findings would not have been big international news of themselves. Instead, the censorship became the news. That the generals couldn't figure this out beforehand says that when in doubt, go for the heavy hammer, which is how it continues to be for political dissenters.

Ozal is said to be sympathetic toward human rights victims. He is not a militarist, nor is he dictatorial. Turkish journalists report that under Ozal censorship has decreased. The best-selling book in Turkey -- "The 12th of September," by the journalist M. Ali Birand -- is critical of the military. The current issue of Nokta, the "Newsweek" of Turkey, carries a cover story on torture. The editor of one major news organization says that five years ago censorship orders came almost every day from the martial law command. Now the harassment is down to once or twice a week.

Ozal wants to create a free-market economy. It can't happen unless there is also a free press and freedom for groups such as the Peace Association. Thousands of prisoners are said to be held in jail without convictions, including Gulsat Aygen, whose case is one of the best known in Turkey.

Human rights violations should really be the most easily solved problem for a government struggling toward stability. But with the generals still sharing power and often using it unthinkingly, what Arthur Miller said remains true: "There is either democracy or none of it."