Selin Sayek Böke
Governments across the world are scrambling to come up with policies to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. A specific aspect of the crisis has been the risk of the virus spreading in prisons and detention centers. That has been a concern for employees, convicts and for the many people that were arrested in Turkey.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) released a statement on March 20, which put forward “principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of COVID-19 pandemic”. The statement began with a reminder that the authorities must protect the health and safety of all people who are deprived of their liberty. This also includes the health and safety of all staff and employees.
In Turkey, an evaluation of the already overcrowded prisons and the conditions of the convicts and arrestees is much needed. The principles of proportionality and equality should be upheld. Any decision that is taken should prioritize the safeguarding of those principles.
Yet unfortunately, Turkish authorities have been establishing extractive institutions and implementing policies that deepen inequalities for quite a while now. The amnesty law that was passed in parliament this week is no different.
The plain truth is that the authoritarian regime sought opportunism from the crisis rather than tackling critical and urgent issues. Once again, the government has shunned the principle of equality and the rule of law. Instead, it is enacting preferential treatment to those loyal to the regime whilst further punishing opposition forces. As usual, the constitution is entirely flouted.
The government’s opportunism is striking in the amnesty law. The permanent nature of its amendments is obvious. Just like it had with the 2016 coup attempt, the regime has used the outbreak of the COVID-19 as a “Gift from God.” The bills they pass do not aim at governance but at punishing.
In fact, the governing coalition had announced the preparation of such a bill quite some time ago. It had thereby raised the hopes and expectations of those facing grave injustices and harsh conditions in prison. Yet until it was brought to parliament for deliberation, the content and flaws of the bill were not discussed. Once the content of the bill became clear, the hopes and expectations of many were shattered. As usual, it paid no heed to the rule of law and human rights.
The opportunism is also evident in the nature of the bill. Rather than addressing problems, the amendments provide short-term relief to a system that is structurally flawed. This means that in the near future, the problems it suffers from will continue to prevail if not worsen.
The amendments do not safeguard equality and justice in the execution of penalties. Of course, those who have without any legal doubt committed a terrorist offense in Turkey should be kept aside, while everyone else ought to be treated the same way. Yet the ambiguity and arbitrariness of the anti-terrorism law in Turkey is conducive to a wide range of penalized offenses and disproportionate penalties. Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the regime has deliberately instrumentalized the law to punish the dissidents. Scores of journalists, intellectuals, politicians, human rights advocates, civil society leaders, activists are imprisoned for promoting freedom of thought and expression, which would be considered a right in functional democracies. This bill in question once again discriminates against them by re-imposing and deepening existing inequalities.
What is more, the bill is limited to those convicted and does not include the detainees. Putting petty offense penalties aside, detention in Turkey has become a political instrument that aims to intimidate opposition forces and critical voices. Excluding the detainees is once again proof that the bill does not seek justice but is utterly political.
Those that have been convicted will be freed while those that have not yet been convicted but are detained will remain in jail! Those that were imprisoned for their responsibility in a train accident that claimed 25 lives will be freed while those that were elected as opposition party MPs or mayors will remain in jail! Those that were penalized for corruption will be freed, while journalists that disclosed the corruption will remain in jail! Those convicted for leading organized crime will be freed, while those that have pushed for civil society to enhance democracy will remain in jail!
And that is not all. Though the authorities claim the bill aims to reduce the overload of the prison system, it does the reverse. Through the restructuring of penalty scales across the board, the bill changes the current practice of no-prison-time for penalties of less than a year to prison-time for all. It is important to note that penalties of less than a year include those for petty crimes but also for opposition views and actions that include - but are not limited to - “insulting the president” or opposing the law of meetings and demonstrations. In the current state of affairs, judges under immense political pressure leniently decide to punish journalists and social media users pursuant to articles 299 or 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The judges find comfort in the fact that execution will not take place. With the proposed amendment, the same attitude will only mean further restriction of freedom of expression and media freedom.
Finally, while this bill is labeled “the execution bill” it is actually an “amnesty bill”. According to the constitution, an amnesty bill would require that a majority of three-fifths in parliament to approve the amendments. However, the regime enforced a deliberation in parliament as a regular bill, not an amnesty bill. A bill that was to bring justice was voted illegally!
Selin Sayek Böke, is a Member of Parliament representing İzmir, since 2015. She has been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) since 2018. Ms. Sayek Böke has been elected to the Party Assembly of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2014, during which she has served as the Vice Chair of Economic Policy between 2014 — 2017, and as the Party Spokesperson between 2016-2017. Selin Sayek Böke holds a B.Sc. degree (1993) in Economics from Middle East Technical University (METU, 1993), an M.A. (1996) and PhD (1999) degree from in Economics from Duke University. She participated in several World Bank projects as consultant, and worked as an Economist at the IMF (2001-2003).