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Turkey’s parliament on April 14 passed a law that will allow the release of tens of thousands of prisoners to ease overcrowding in jails and protect inmates from the coronavirus, but which critics slam for excluding those jailed on terrorism charges.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supported the bill, which was accepted with 279 votes for and 51 votes against in the 600-seat chamber, Deputy Parliament Speaker Süreyya Sadi Bilgiç said.

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli also attended the voting.

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli (front R) wears a protective mask as a precaution against the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19).

90,000 prisoners to be released

The law will open the way for the temporary release of around 45,000 prisoners to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Those eligible will be released under judicial control until the end of May and the Justice Ministry will be able to extend the period twice by a maximum of two months each time, according to the law.

A similar number would be released permanently under a separate part of the legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

The legal amendment will enable home confinement for some inmates over 65, women who have children aged six and under and sick prisoners who cannot take care of themselves. It will also bring measures for inmates with communicable diseases. 

A brawl erupted between İYİ (Good) Party deputy Halil İbrahim Oral and MHP deputy Cemal Enginyurt.

Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said on April 13 there were 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners, including three deaths. He said 79 prison personnel had also tested positive, along with a total of 80 judges and prosecutors, judiciary personnel and forensic science personnel.

‘Terror’ charges left out

The law has been criticised by opposition parties for excluding those jailed on terrorism charges, which include journalists and politicians swept up in a crackdown following the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt.

The opposition points out that ‘terror’ has taken on a broad meaning in Turkey, essentially used as a way to criminalize any opponent of the government.

Under the crackdown since 2016, the number of prisoners has risen to nearly 300,000 – the second-largest prison population in Europe and the most overcrowded prison system as of January 2019, according to data from the Council of Europe.

Around 50,000 people convicted or jailed pending trial on terrorism charges are excluded, according to an opposition lawmaker.

Turan Aydoğan, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the law should have been designed to protect freedom of thought.

“You lock up whoever criticises. We tried to find a solution here but you are neutral,” Aydoğan said, addressing AKP and MHP members in parliament.

Last-minute MİT law addition

Crimes committed against the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) will also not be eligible for sentence reduction, an element of the legislation that opposition lawmakers say was included at the last minute to ensure that a number of journalists recently arrested for reporting on the funeral of a MİT officer who died in Libya will stay behind bars.

Online news portal OdaTV’s news director Barış Terkoğlu and reporter Hülya Kılınç were arrested on March 5 on suspicion of disclosing the identity of an intelligence agency official even though the name had been revealed by a lawmaker a week earlier.

A day later, OdaTV’s editor-in-chief Barış Pehlivan was also arrested.

On March 8, Yeniçağ columnist Murat Ağırel, Yeni Yaşam editor-in-chief Ferhat Çelik and the daily’s news editor Aydın Keser were arrested over the same story, bringing the number of journalists arrested in the case to six.

“Gang members, looters, thieves, those giving bribes, pushing women to death, beaters, drug dealers and many other criminals will be released, but prisoners of thought won’t,” CHP deputy Utku Çakırözer said of the last-minute MİT law amendment.

Another CHP deputy to slam the move was Zeynel Emre.

“Lately a number of opposition journalists have been arrested due to the MİT law. With the proposal they brought they included this among the exceptional crimes. If you believed that you were in the right, you wouldn’t have done this in the middle of the night. You would have discussed beforehand in a commission. They know what they are doing is wrong, but this coalition will continue with this wrongdoing,” Emre said.

Pehlivan sends message from prison

Following the last-minute addition, Pehlivan sent a message from prison, saying, “If I had a knife in my hand instead of a pen, I would be released.”

“If I had money instead of paper on my desk, I would be out,” he also said.

HDP: Sex-related criminals will be released

Opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Züheyla Gülüm said that plenty of crimes against women and children, including crimes against sexual integrity, injuring women, crimes of blackmailing and threatening and publishing child pornography were included in the law, which will allow the perpetrators to be released.

“All crimes were listed, but only the political ones were left out. Even though they say that the law doesn’t include sex-related crimes, those criminals will be released,” Gülüm told Mesopotamia News Agency.

“These perpetrators will return home and domestic violence will significantly increase,” she said.

AKP deputies break social distancing rule

AKP deputies, meanwhile, broke the social distancing rule amid the coronavirus outbreak when they gathered to pose for a photo after the voting.

“Dear friends, pay attention to social distancing,” Bilgiç said, but to no avail.

Amnesty International slams new law

The new law was slammed by Amnesty International’s Turkey Campaigner, Milena Buyum.

“Those convicted in unfair trials under Turkey’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws are also now condemned to face the prospect of infection from this deadly disease,” Buyum said.

“Turkey’s government must do the right thing and immediately release those who are imprisoned solely for expressing their peaceful views,” she added.