As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, families of jailed journalists say each day they are worried more about the well-being of their loved ones who are being kept behind bars
Some 45,000 people have so far been released from Turkey’s prisons under the amendments to the Law on the Execution of Penalties, enacted on 15 April. Although the government says the law was aimed at reducing prison population in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in prisons, journalists convicted of or charged with offenses under the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism (TMK) have been excluded from the law despite numerous calls from opposition lawmakers and civil society organizations. The families of journalists who are currently behind bars say they are concerned about the well-being of their loved ones as the pandemic sweeps the entire world.
Currently there are at least 102 journalists and media workers in prison in Turkey. Some of them are under heightened risk for severe health issues due to underlying chronic illnesses. P24 contacted the families of jailed journalists Mümtazer Türköne, Ziya Ataman, Aziz Oruç and Mevlüt Öztaş ahead of World Press Freedom Day 2020.
“Prisoners not sent to the infirmary”
Mümtazer Türköne, a former columnist for the shuttered Zaman newspaper, has been in the Silivri Prison for almost four years. Türköne’s daughter, Sıla, says her father has been suffering from heart disease and arterial plaque and that his condition has been worsening. Türköne said prisoners were not allowed to visit the prison infirmary. She added that since visitation was banned in prisons due to the pandemic, she had been talking to her dad on the phone every week. She said as part of measures against the pandemic, prison guards were also staying in the prison premises.
Journalist Ziya Ataman, who was sentenced to 14 years and 3 months in prison on the charge of “membership of a terrorist group,” has been jailed since April 2016. He is currently in the Van Maximum Security Prison. Ataman’s brother Nail Ataman said the Ataman family was concerned over Ziya’s well-being due to the pandemic. Noting that Ziya has chronic issues with his digestive system, Nail Ataman said his brother’s health has deteriorated under prison conditions. “Ziya tells us that they aren't allowed to visit the infirmary every time they need to. We are concerned,” Nail Ataman said. He added that prison guards in Van Prison were also not allowed outside the prison premises.
“Prisoners not allowed to purchase food and cleaning products”
Journalist Aziz Oruç has been jailed in the Patnos L Type Prison since December 2019. His wife, Hülya, says their right to phone call was reduced to once a week ever since prison visitation has been banned due to the pandemic.
“Aziz told me during our latest phone call that the amount of food they were given had been reduced lately and that sometimes they were given only one or two meals a day. He also told me he was unable to purchase food or cleaning products; that they had to take their showers with cold water; and that the water smells like sewage water. The Patnos Prison complex has both open and closed sections. Two inmates released from the open prison last week transmitted the Covid-19 infection to their families. Another inmate who is held in the same unit as Aziz has not been taken to hospital despite running a high fever. Aziz says the prison guards have been avoiding going near the prison cells even for a head count. Before my husband’s imprisonment we had found out about a cyst in his head. He says he has been suffering from dizziness and loss of balance. I am extremely concerned for him because of his ongoing condition as well as the pandemic,” Hülya Oruç told P24.
Hülya Oruç also became subject to judicial harassment last week, when she was taken into custody in Diyarbakır on 30 April over her social media posts about prison conditions in the Patnos Prison. Oruç made her statement to a Criminal Judgeship of Peace on the allegation of “Threatening to incite fear and panic among the public.” The judgeship released her under house arrest and imposed on her an international travel ban.
“No amnesty, more unjust treatment”
Mevlüt Öztaş, a former correspondent for the shuttered Cihan news agency, has been jailed since February 2018. Öztaş’s daughter Büşra took to Twitter on 21 April to announce that her father had been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that the cancer might be in an advanced stage. Noting that her father has a number of chronic illnesses including asthma, high blood pressure and chronic kidney failure, Büşra Öztaş says their numerous petitions seeking her father’s release based on medical grounds have all been rejected.
Büşra Öztaş added that they learned that her father had undergone gallbladder surgery some time ago. “We were not informed by the prison management; my father told us about his surgery on the phone after being discharged from the hospital and returning to prison,” she said.
“The week after his surgery, my father did not call us, so we were worried and we called the prison. But we couldn't get any information, because it was a weekend. On Monday, we found out that my father had been hospitalized and transferred to Ankara,” Öztaş said as she recounted her father’s recent diagnosis with cancer: “That afternoon, thanks to Parliamentary Deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu’s efforts, we could locate which hospital my father was admitted to. For days, no official gave us any information as to where my father was and why he was hospitalized. We strived for days to get information about my father’s condition. In addition to not being able to visit him because of the ongoing travel restrictions due to the pandemic, we were unable to get satisfactory information over the phone, because everytime we called, we were told that they could only provide information in person since my father was convicted. But in order to be able to travel to where he is, we are required to hold a medical report proving my dad’s condition. But neither the prison management nor the hospital gave us such a medical report. We need to visit my father in order to get information as to his condition but we need the hospitalor the prison management to issue a medical report in order for us to be able to go see him. Both institutions have been pointing at the other one for the report. As if this was not enough, every single time I called, I was scolded over the phone for asking for information.”
Öztaş added that her father was unable to call his family because during his transfer to Ankara, his account was not transferred to the current prison and that therefore he has been unable to purchase a phone card. Öztaş added: “When I called the prison management to ask why his account has not been transferred, officials told me this was due to an [increase in paperwork] because of the recent release orders. Not only were we excluded from the recent amnesty, but we were also deprived of information about my dad at a time we had to be there for him the most.”
Öztaş eventually found out days later from the hospital management that her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: “They said the tumor was in a particularly risky location. If it has spread to other organs, it may already have advanced to Stage 4. Hopefully, if it has not spread, he needs to undergo surgery, but doctors say the surgery is too risky and so they need to consult with more specialists.”
“My dad’s case file is currently pending before the regional court of appeals, his conviction has not been upheld. We want my father to be released,” Öztaş added.