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Thousands of political prisoners are held in the vast Silivri campus prison, Istanbul. © 2016 AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

(Istanbul) – An examination of cases of prisoners, in the hundreds, whose underlying health conditions put them most at risk of the deadly effects of COVID-19 demonstrates why the Turkish authorities should include such inmates in its new plans for early release on parole or house arrest despite their conviction under antiterrorism laws, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch examined 14 cases of prisoners whose health puts them at the gravest risk and who should be considered eligible to benefit from measures to shield them from the virus. But a draft law with alternatives to incarceration for some prisoners excludes those serving time for the most serious crimes, including terrorism offenses, regardless of whether their underlying medical conditions or inability to care for themselves in prison mean they are among those at the greatest risk of death from COVID-19.  

“When taking action to protect prisoners from the COVID-19 virus, those at gravest risk should not be left out of consideration,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government’s positive proposal to reduce overcrowded prisons is undermined by the blanket exclusion of thousands of inmates convicted on terrorism charges, including those at risk of death from the virus and those who should not be in prison in the first place.”

The government’s draft law is due to be voted on in Parliament early in the week of April 5, 2020 and should significantly reduce the population in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, a key priority in efforts to prevent rapid transmission of COVID-19 virus among detainees and staff. It would provide early release on parole and house arrest for several categories of prisoners, among them pregnant women, older people with medical conditions, and those with limited sentences left to serve.

Tens of thousands of inmates are behind bars for links with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), revolutionary leftist groups, or alleged affiliation with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization and accuses of orchestrating the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Turkey has detained, prosecuted, and convicted thousands of civil servants, lawyers, politicians, activists, and journalists for alleged links to these groups, although there is no evidence they committed violent crimes, incited violence, or provided logistical support to outlawed armed groups. The blanket terrorism exclusion in the draft law covers all prisoners convicted for terrorism offenses, makes no mention of detainees in detention before or during trial for terrorism offenses, and makes no allowance for those in either group with chronic medical conditions for whom COVID-19 poses a lethal risk. Among the latter are individuals who were convicted for violent activities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 lawyers and family members of prisoners, 2 former prisoners, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on prisons about overcrowded prison conditions and the situation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They described inconsistent preventive and protection measures for disease in prisons, including whether staff wear protective masks or whether masks and cleaning materials are provided to prisoners.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Europe’s European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has recommended that governments provide alternatives to deprivation of liberty to ease overcrowding and offer “screening for COVID-19 and pathways to intensive care” for those most vulnerable.

The government’s draft law is focused on convicted prisoners and does not contain measures for the release of detainees held on remand – provisional or pretrial detention – whose numbers are currently estimated to be 43,000, according to rights groups that received informal figures from the Justice Ministry. Detainees are categorized as being on remand until their convictions are confirmed by the Court of Cassation.

Most journalists, politicians, and rights defenders in prison are still on remand facing trial on terrorism charges. Among them are people over age 60, including the rights defender Osman Kavala and the journalist Ahmet Altan. Politicians in prison include Selahattin Demirtaş, who is taking medication for a heart condition, and Gültan Kışanak.

“For vulnerable prisoners the COVID-19 pandemic risks turning a prison sentence into a death sentence,” Williamson said. “Prisoners who have been jailed for little more than their political views should be able to benefit from the early release law.”

For detailed findings and international human rights requirements, please see below.

According to Justice Ministry data for March, Turkey’s penitentiary system has the capacity for 235,431 inmates, but in November 2019, it held upwards of 286,000 inmates. There are 368 prisons with 67,246 personnel. The Justice Ministry no longer publishes up-to-date and disaggregated statistics on the prison population so available figures are drawn from statements by ministers. The number of inmates has risen sharply in recent years, with Human Rights Watch regularly receiving complaints of overcrowding, prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and prisoners having to share limited toilet and washing facilities.

In several cases prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey’s failure to offer adequate medical care and conditions to sick prisoners or to release terminally ill prisoners has constituted cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or has violated the right to life. In its most recent published report following a visit to Turkey’s prisons in June 2013, as in earlier reports, the CPT raised concerns about prison authorities’ capacity to provide adequate health care for inmates and made recommendations for proper screening of prisoners for transmissible diseases.

Since that visit, rights groups in Turkey – in particular the Human Rights Association and the Association of Lawyers for Freedom – have compiled new lists seen by Human Rights Watch of hundreds of sick prisoners and repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of access to timely and adequate medical treatment, obstacles to securing postponement of sentences for convicted prisoners unfit on medical grounds to be held in prison, or release for sick prisoners with ongoing trials. Turkey’s Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on Human Rights has recently published several reports raising serious concerns about prisons conditions and capacity to provide medical care for prisoners.

The prisoners whose cases Human Rights Watch examined have medical reports documenting their health condition and, in some cases, reports from Turkey’s Forensic Institute, which in the context of the COVID19 virus would justify alternatives to incarceration in prison or postponement of sentence. Human Rights Watch has seen the medical reports for the prisoners whose cases are addressed.

Risk for COVID-19 Complications, Death

COVID-19 is a serious disease, which can have symptoms ranging from no or mild fever, shortness of breath, and cough for people at low risk, to respiratory failure and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies individuals at highest risk to include those over age 60 and those of any age with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.

Other serious conditions putting people at high risk include blood disorders, chronic kidney or liver disease, compromised immune system, endocrine disorders, (including diabetes), metabolic disorders, heart and lung disease (including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions, and current or recent pregnancy.

With the onset of COVID-19, Turkey’s Justice Ministry has suspended all open and closed visits by family members until mid-April with possible further extensions. Prison administrations now allow inmates to make an additional 10-minute phone call to families to compensate the restriction of family visits. The justice minister has also announced measures to have doctors screen all new prisoners on admission to a facility and then to have them placed in quarantine for 14 days, as well as steps to provide masks and gloves to prison personnel.

On March 24, an opposition member of parliament, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a cardiologist, alleged on social media that there were at least two cases of COVID-19, affecting a prisoner and a member of staff in Ankara’s Sincan L-type prison. In response, the Ankara chief prosecutor began an investigation into Gergerlioğlu for spreading panic among the population. Rather than targeting people for such reports, there is an urgent need for the government to inform the public by providing transparent information on the prevalence of the virus, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 31, in a case unrelated to those reported by Gergerlioğlu, a court accepted a medical report that a prisoner held on remand for alleged terrorism offenses had contracted COVID-19. The court ruled for the release of Nalan Özaydın, the dismissed co-mayor for Mazıdağı, Mardin, ruling that she be placed under house arrest.

Overcrowding and Lack of Prevention Measures

Overcrowding in prisons, a longstanding concern in Turkey, limits the possibility of effective social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One lawyer informed Human Rights Watch that Elazığ high security prisons 1 and 2 “have a capacity of 450 but there are around 800 prisoners in each.” The wife of a prisoner in Urfa T-type prison no. 2 said her husband told her in a March 29 phone call that there were 20 prisoners in his ward designed for 8, and that while everyone had a bed, in some other wards prisoners slept on mattresses on the floor.

The wife of a prisoner in Hatay T-type prison said her husband is “in a ward with more than 20 people despite only having a capacity for 12 to 14 prisoners. Many prisoners sleep on mattresses on the floor.” A lawyer whose client is in Karaman M-type closed prison said her client “is held in a ward with a capacity for 8 prisoners but which holds 28.”

Families and lawyers have also raised concerns about the lack of adequate cleaning materials, soap, and masks for prisoners and prison staff. One prisoner in Gaziantep H-type prison told a relative by phone on March 19: “We haven’t been given any hygiene materials. Most prison personnel do not wear any masks; only a few do. They seem to be careless. We are not given any masks either. We are taking our own precautions as much as we can with limited resources.”

A prisoner in Diyarbakır D-type prison told a relative by phone on March 20: “They are not taking any precautions here, no one is wearing masks. We haven’t been given any hygiene material.” A prisoner released from Izmir Aliağa women’s prison on March 24 informed Human Rights Watch:

The prison administration gave us half a liter of bleach and said it was from the Justice Ministry. It was clearly not enough for our ward, so we bought hygiene materials from the prison canteen. The prison administration gave posters with information on how to preserve hygiene and wash hands to each ward. There were also informative videos on the prison’s private channel.

Convicted Prisoners to Whom COVID-19 Would Pose a Risk to Life

Human Rights Watch examined 14 cases of prisoners with chronic or acute medical conditions who will not benefit from the current new draft law on early release or measures such as house arrest because they have been convicted of or are held on remand for terrorism offenses.

One is serving a sentence of aggravated life imprisonment (life without parole), which exempts him from any release under Turkey’s laws, including the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures (article 25). The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey should provide the possibility for these prisoners to commute or terminate their sentences. The court has found that Turkey’s failure to offer a mechanism to provide such a possibility constitutes a violation of the absolute prohibition on torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  

Mehmet Emin Özkan, 81, has been in prison since 1996. He is held in Diyarbakır D-type prison. He was originally given a life sentence for participating in PKK attacks, although his conviction was based on witness testimony allegedly obtained under torture. However, Özkan is now being retried after his case was reassessed on the basis of another trial connected to the incidents in his case. His lawyer provided Human Rights Watch with evidence of Özkan’s multiple chronic medical conditions including a heart condition, hypertension, and kidney and intestinal disorders.

His lawyer’s repeated applications to the court citing lack of evidence that he committed a crime and health grounds have been rejected. Özkan’s family said that Özkan is unable to look after himself and relies on other prisoners. On March 18, Özkan’s lawyer applied again for his release on the grounds that his age and medical conditions make him at serious risk from COVID-19. The following day a court rejected the application.

İdris Başaran, 45, has been in prison since 1994, currently held in Bursa H-type prison, serving a life sentence. He joined the PKK when he was 17 after a traumatic family history, including his father’s detention and torture and the forced displacement of his family from their southeast village. Medical reports seen by Human Rights Watch reveal that among other medical conditions and a long history of repeated medical interventions, Başaran has asthma and a serious cardiac condition. Başaran’s medical condition means that COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life.  

Soydan Akay, 49, has been in prison since 1993, currently held in Silivri prison no. 9, serving a life sentence for PKK activities. He suffers from various medical conditions and has been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in a hospital in Istanbul for the past two months. COVID-19 poses a risk to his life as a cancer patient.

Ergin Aktaş, 32, has been in prison since 2011 and was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for PKK activities in which he lost both hands in a bomb attack. He is in Metris R-type prison in Istanbul, in a cell with two other prisoners with disabilities – Abdullah Turan, who cannot use his four limbs (tetraplegia), and Serdal Yıldırım, who cannot move his lower limbs (paraplegia). The three rely on one another and the Forensic Medicine Institute has issued separate reports for each of them, concluding that they are unable to live without assistance.

Aktaş’s lawyer supplied Human Rights Watch with five reports from the Forensic Institute determining that Aktaş is unable to look after himself in prison and providing grounds for his release under the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures (article 16/6). Aktaş also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and tuberculosis, which mean COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life. All applications for his release so far have been rejected on public security grounds and on March 24, his lawyer applied to the prosecutor, citing the high risk of COVID-19 as new grounds for his release.

Abdullah Kalay, 53, has spent 19 years in prison and is held in Kocaeli F-type prison no. 2. He was first jailed from 1992 to 2001, then returned to prison in 2010 when the Court of Cassation upheld his sentence of 32 years and 6 months for membership of the armed group Turkish Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist (TKP/ML) and armed robbery. Despite a serious heart condition, and four reports by the Kocaeli University Hospital recommending his release for medical treatment, courts have so far rejected his applications to postpone his sentence.

He has been frequently hospitalized but returned to prison. In May 2019, Kalay underwent open heart surgery as his condition declined. He has a case relating to continued imprisonment pending before the European Court of Human Rights. On March 19, 2020, Kalay’s lawyer applied for postponement of his sentence and release arguing that COVID-19 posed a grave risk to his life.  

Fatma Tokmak, 44, was detained in 1996 for alleged links with the PKK and alleges she and her then 2-year-old son were tortured in police custody in Istanbul and that she was forced to sign a statement she was unable to read, as a Kurdish woman who did not speak Turkish. Released temporarily in 2006, she was returned to prison in 2010 when the Court of Cassation upheld her sentence of life in prison.

A 2014 medical report from the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey found her unfit to serve time in prison on health grounds. Tokmak’s medical problems include a chronic heart condition, asthma, and hypertension, for which she has repeatedly been hospitalized while in prison. Her lawyer has once again applied on March 23 for her release on these grounds, arguing that COVID-19 poses a risk to her life.

Dilek Öz, 48, was detained in 1994 in Ankara and is serving a sentence of life in prison (in Bakırköy women’s prison) for alleged involvement in a bomb attack. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that Öz’s conviction was based on witness statements only and that a medical report supports her allegation that she was tortured in custody. Öz’s family says she has medical conditions including hypertension, asthma, and bronchitis, which require frequent visits to hospital.

Hasan Alkış, 60, has been in prison since January 1994 and been sentenced to life in prison for links with the PKK. After a heart attack and surgery in 2004, the Forensic Medicine Institute ruled he was unable to remain in prison for medical reasons. His release was rejected by the authorities on public security grounds and the Forensic Institute reversed its original recommendation a month later and determined he could remain in prison. Over the years, Alkış has developed multiple medical conditions in addition to his heart condition and hypertension. Alkis applied again for release on medical grounds a year ago. His application was rejected and he remains in Bolu F-type prison.

Camal Aydoğan, 52, has been serving a 12-year, 6-month sentence for membership of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) in Kocaeli F-type prison no. 2 since November 2014. Aydoğan has acute asthma and other chronic lung conditions. His lawyer said that he nearly died after an asthma attack for which he was urgently hospitalized while in prison.

Cases of Remand Prisoners at Risk from COVID-19

Ahmet Türkmen, 68, has a history of chronic heart disease, among several other serious medical complications, and has had a major heart bypass operation. He has been in Kayseri T-type prison no. 1 for the past 3 years, with an appeal pending against his April 2018 conviction for membership of a terrorist organization, for which he received a 14-year prison sentence. He is accused of links to the Gülen movement, which Turkey terms the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) and accuses of masterminding the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

Although the Forensic Medicine Institute recommended providing him with medical examinations every 6 months, he has been offered just 1 medical examination in 3 years. He is held with 10 prisoners in a ward with capacity for 3. COVID-19 would pose a serious risk to his life. On March 18, his lawyer applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds, citing the risk of COVID-19.

İsmet Özçelik, 61 and a former school principal in Malaysia, has been in prison in Turkey since May 2017 and is held in Denizli T-type prison. Despite the fact he was registered as an asylum seeker with the United Nations refugee agency in Malaysia, Özçelik was abducted in Malaysia and forcibly sent to Turkey. In May 2019 the UN Human Rights Committee determined that Turkey had violated Özçelik’s rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and that he should be released from detention and compensated. Turkey has failed to implement this decision.

Özçelik was convicted in 2019 of membership of a terrorist organization (FETÖ) for links with the Gülen movement and is appealing his 10-year prison sentence. Özçelik has a heart condition and reported that he was not given timely medical intervention in July 2019 when he felt he was having a heart attack. His lawyer said that he has been refused a copy of the medical report detailing Ozcelik’s condition after Özçelik had undergone a medical check-up weeks after his initial urgent complaint. His lawyers in mid-March applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds in the context of the risk COVID-19 poses.

Hüseyin Soykan, 48, a former police officer, has been in Karaman M-type prison for 44 months. He was convicted of membership of a terrorist organization (FETÖ) for links with the Gülen movement and received an eight-year prison sentence, now under appeal. Medical reports show that he has a chronic lung condition and, in the past, had a collapsed lung. He was twice urgently hospitalized while in prison.

Soykan is held in a ward of 28 prisoners which has a capacity for 8. Another prisoner in the ward, Amir Gulaçtı, died on October 20, 2019 of suspected heart failure soon after his lawyer had complained of poor conditions affecting the health of inmates in the prison. A full autopsy report from the Forensic Medicine Institute to determine the full cause of Gulaçtı’s death is expected. Soykan’s medical condition means that COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life and on March 19, his lawyer applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds.    


This report was updated to reword a sentence on three prisoners with disabilities whose cases are examined.

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