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Are the Turkish authorities using the COVID-19 crisis to kill off those who oppose their rule?

This might seem to be an extreme proposition but it is a fair conclusion in light of recent actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that leaves thousands of his opponents locked in gaols where they are exposed to the dangerous virus.

In the week that Turkey overtook Iran as the country in the Middle East with the highest number of COVID-19 cases the Turkish parliament passed government legislation that has set in train the release of about one third of the country’s 300,000 prisoners, including many convicted of violent crimes. There is no doubt that mass release of prisoners is necessary to reduce the spread of this dangerous virus.

However, Turkey’s mass release does not include prisoners who are known opponents of President Erdogan. Thousands of political prisoners are now exposed to the dangerous virus in Turkey’s overcrowded gaols that are notorious for inadequate health facilities, poor nutrition and sub-standard ventilation.

The official government line is that as some prisoners have tested positive to the corona virus the mass prisoner release is necessary to avoid the rapid spread of the deadly disease in country’s gaols. However, considering political prisoners, that number around 50,000, are excluded from the release plans it is clear that this decision is politically motivated and amounts to one of the most ruthless and sinister acts of the Turkish President.

COVID-19 is already in Turkeys prisons. On 13 April the Turkish government admitted that 17 prisoners have tested positive to the coronavirus and three of them have died.

A number of the political prisoners that include human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians are in the vulnerable high risk category for COVID-19 infection. One of those prisoners, Selahattin Demirtas, is reported to be in a high risk category because he has raised blood pressure and has had surgery for respiratory problems.

Demirtas, a former leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, who has been in prison for nearly four years, like many others has been gaoled for being a member of an alleged terrorist organisation. The Turkish government is able to successfully gaol thousands of people on spurious charges of terrorism. The definition of terrorism is vague and subjective and the political influence the Erdogan forces exert over the judiciary has effectively destroyed the essential independence of Turkey’s judges.

Turkey has the highest number of prisoners over 65 years of age of all European countries. This puts a large percentage of the political prisoners still held in Turkish prisons at a greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Two political prisoners, Ahmet Altan and Osman Kavala, both over 60 years are in this category. Their cases illustrate why the independence of Turkey’s judiciary is under a cloud. Recently Altan had his sentence overturned and Kavala was acquitted. Both were released only to be immediately arrested and gaoled again.

Kavala and Altan along with all other political prisoners now face an uncertain future, particularly as the COVID-19 infection rates could be higher than the Turkish government has acknowledged.

The chair of the Turkish Medical Association, Sinan Adiyaman, has accused Erdogan’s government of systematically minimising the corona danger. Last week’s figures from the Turkish Health Ministry show that Turkey had the second-highest number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases for the previous 24 hours after the USA. Adiyaman said the scale of the outbreak remained unclear because diagnostic tests in Turkey only had 55–60 per cent accuracy rates and many patients who had died with COVID-19 symptoms had been excluded from the death toll.

The Turkish government has been warned about the dangers of leaving political prisoners locked up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the European Parliament and the European associations of judges and a number human rights organisations have set out the case for releasing political prisoners in response to the pandemic.

All this evidence about the spread of infection in gaols and the official warnings about the extent of the danger demonstrates beyond doubt that President Erdogan is taking Turkey down a very dangerous path. The answer to the question — why are Turkey’s political prisoners, Erdogan’s opponents, retained in gaol — is very clear. Many will die not at the hands of Turkish security forces or due to enforced disappearances, but because of the COVID-19 virus.

The Federation of Democratic Kurdish Society-Australia is urging people and organisations to call on the Turkish government to grant early release of political prisoners on the basis of medical need and not on the basis of political affiliation.

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