President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hit multiple birds with one stone by bringing up this bill in a time of crisis. He is redirecting attention from his government’s unsuccessful battle against the novel coronavirus and would, at least partially, mitigate the significant risk that the virus could pose for prison populations by reducing the number of people behind bars. But there are signs that he will use this bill for his own political purposes. While releasing some of his supporters, he is not releasing any of Turkey’s tens of thousands of political prisoners.
When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the number of detainees and prisoners in the country was 60,000. This has increased to reach nearly 300,000. One of the key reasons this number has grown so significantly is that the government is creating new crimes. For example, according to reports from the Ankara Bar Association, more than 100,000 people have been under investigation for allegations of insulting the president.
As political pressure evoked new insults, and insults brought imprisonment, the government had to build 178 new prisons. Even this has not been able to meet the “demand.” Now, with the suspended sentences, about one-third of prisoners crammed in cells will be released. But of course, the ones who insulted the president are not up for amnesty. This is because the cases brought against most of them are not for “criticizing the government" but for “membership in a terrorist organization.” Those convicted of this — including journalists arrested for their reporting, writers convicted for commentary, human rights activists imprisoned for participating in a protest, or politicians held in prison for speeches — could face years more behind bars.
This leads to a grave injustice: While the bill would allow for the release of a swindler imprisoned for corruption, it would keep in prison a university student who called Erdogan a “thief,” resulting in a scenario in which calling someone a “thief” is punished more severely than committing theft. In the same vein, a bureaucrat who accepts bribes could be released, while the journalist who reports on the bribery would remain imprisoned.
A police officer, found guilty of killing a protester with a shot to the head in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, was sentenced last month to six years and 10 months in prison. With the new law, he could be released in a few months. Meanwhile, businessman Osman Kavala has been held in prison for two months on charges of financing the Gezi Park protests without any convincing evidence, after already spending more than two years in prison on a charge he was acquitted of in February. Similarly, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the former co-presidents of parliament’s second-biggest opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been in prison for about 3½ years. They are also considered guilty of terrorism and therefore would not be up for amnesty under the law.
Preparations have already begun for the prison beds that will be emptied from the pardons as the government continues its crackdown on dissent. Writing about the possibility of the government requisitioning bank deposits from citizens, Fatih Portakal, an anchor on Turkey’s Fox TV news station, recently tweeted: “I hope they won’t say ‘These are tough times’ to ask for money from people with deposits and savings. … Unfortunately I can’t be sure that they won’t." Erdogan’s lawyer immediately released a statement announcing legal action, saying, “These statements were geared towards manipulating the public.” This pressure forces the opponents to think twice before even sharing a critical post about the government on social media.
Journalists and activists in Turkey already know to pack their bags or plan for an extended stay in prison when the president files a criminal complaint. There is no independent judiciary that could uphold the rights of political prisoners. And very soon, there will be plenty of room in Turkey’s prisons to house even more political prisoners — when they all should be immediately freed.