The pandemic has turned everything upside down. It has compelled government to adopt unusual measures. Yet in some cases, governments have used COVID-19 to undertake new laws and hidden agendas. 

In Turkey, a recent law that was passed by the parliament and which allowed the release of tens of thousands of prisoners was presented as a measure of protection against the pandemic. 

In reality however, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) had been working on that bill months before the COVID-19 outbreak.

While it is made up of 70 articles, the bill mentions the coronavirus only once. It would reduce the sentences of convicted prisoners, among them gangsters, looters, attempted killers, drug dealers, sexual offenders. Some will be released at once, others will be transferred to open prisons before their release.  

According to President Erdoğan, the parole law was prepared with respect to ‘national sensitivies.’ But those so-called sensitivies are no more than the partisan policies of the AKP and the MHP and have nothing to do with the interest of the public as a whole. What is more, the laws favors people who had been convicted for the Soma mine disaster, the Çorlu train accident as well as convicted police officers who had killed teenagers during the Gezi protests and notorious mafia leaders like Alaattin Çakıcı.

The bill that the AKP and the MHP prepared was debated in parliament for six days. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made a total of 200 objections, but none were considered. As the AKP-MHP alliance holds the majority in parliament, the bill was passed. 

In fact, even the voting procedure was carried out unlawfully. Turan Aydoğan, a lawmaker from CHP and a member of the Parliament’s Law Commission, said that in order to pass a parole law, a 3/5 majority is necessary, which requires a total 360 votes. The law was passed with 330 votes. 

Most importantly though, the law goes against the principles of equality stated by the Constitution. The parole law does not apply to so-called “terror-related crimes,” a murky category that includes critical Tweets, news coverage, press releaes or any opposition political activity. Thousands of HDP politicans, followers of the Gülen movement as well as writers, journalists, philanthropists, lawyers and students have been imprisoned on “terror related” charges. 

Journalists as well as civil right groups and the relatives of prisoners have called for the release of political prisoners, whom they refer to as “prisoners of thought” on social media.  

The legal amendment enables would enable home confinement for some inmates over the age of 65, women who have children aged six and sick prisoners. Yet this does not apply to political prisoners. Meral Danış Beştaş, a HDP MP and group deputy chairwoman, says there are currently 457 prisoners who are very ill. 

“We urged the authorities to release the prisoners. We even asked for a last chance for them to die at home. Sick prisoners don’t stand a chance of being treated or surviving in prisons during the Coronavirus outbreak. They are sentenced to death.” 

AKP members deny that the parole law will enable the release of sexual and domestic abuse offenders. Beştaş says this is a lie. She personally asked the Parliament if this were the case, but got no answer. 

CHP lawmaker Aydoğan pointed out that this new law highlights the government’s hatred of dissidents. A last minute change to the bill prevented six jailed journalists who had reported on the funeral of a National Intelligence (MIT) Officer from being released. 

As of yesterday, the release has begun. The Ministry of Justice sent a note to the press asking journalists not to go to the gates of prisons for coverage, in order to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. State-controlled agencies will cover it instead, they said.