Gergerlioğlu says number of detainees in cells increased as some cells were converted into quarantine units and not enough precautions are taken to counter the spread of Covid-19
According to 2019 data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Turkey has the second highest number of persons in prison per 100,000 of its population among OECD member states. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a lawmaker from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a member of the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, says the government’s early release law has failed to ease prison conditions despite releasing about 90,000 people from prisons.
Noting that before the enactment of the early release law in mid-April there were about 300,000 inmates in Turkey’s prisons, Gergerlioğlu told P24 in an exclusive interview that Turkey’s prison occupancy rate was still well above global standards.
Despite releases, the problem of overcrowding in prisons could not be solved and rather intensified, Gergerlioğlu said, adding: “The number of inmates per cell increased after some cells were emptied out and converted into quarantine units. For example in the Silivri Prison, 35 people were housed in a cell designed for seven people and now 45 people are held in those cells. The quarantined are not always separated from the healthy; spaces of common use have not been eliminated. For example, those in quarantine and others dine together, and quarantine measures fail altogether.”
Gergerlioğlu explained that prisoners faced difficulty in accessing cleaning supplies and protective gear such as masks and gloves.
“We received many complaints about correction officers and gendarmerie not paying attention to hygiene rules and social distancing while carrying out searches and raids,” Gergerlioğlu said, adding: “Inmates are given a glass of bleach and told to clean their units. Kolonya (Turkish cologne) is not legally permitted in prisons. Other disinfectants have to be bought from the commissaries and are not handed out for free. I’ve heard of many units where prisoners are not even given soap.”
Covid-19 cases in prisons discovered after releases
Gergerlioğlu explained that Covid-19 cases in prisons began to be discovered after prisoners began to be released: “Until the law came into force, there was a tendency in prisons to not send inmates to hospitals. Inmates with ongoing health conditions were denied medical treatment. We know there are Covid-19 positive cases among prison staff, doctors and inmates. Cases began to emerge after inmates began to be freed. One such example is a person who died in Nusaybin a few days after his release from Dalaman Open Prison. After he came out of prison, it turned out he was infected with the virus. But by that time he had already met up with his family and had spread the virus here and there. Then his condition worsened and he lost his life in an intensive care unit in Nusaybin.”
Minister of Justice Abdülhamit Gül’s press briefing on 13 April was the first time a government official confirmed there were Covid-19 positive cases in Turkey's prisons. Gül had said 17 inmates in five open prisons had been diagnosed with Covid-19 and three had died from it. Days before the minister’s announcement, Gergerlioğlu had already announced that a prisoner diagnosed with Covid-19 had been hospitalized. Following Gergerlioğlu’s announcement, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a public statement and denied the case. Immediately after the Prosecutor’s Office’s statement, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that an investigation had been launched against Gergerlioğlu.
Gergerlioğlu said that when he recently called the Sincan Prison in Ankara to check up on the patient, Arif Yıldırım, officials declined to give him information. After numerous calls to the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses and the hospital, Gergerlioğlu finally discovered that the patient had been moved to the Covid-19 unit on 23 March. On 3 April his condition worsened and he was transferred to the intensive care unit. In the meantime, Gergerlioğlu said, the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses launched a speedy process of stay of execution for the patient since they probably wanted to cover something up. The stay of execution, not even granted to cancer patients or political prisoners, was suddenly granted to this patient in about 10 days. This inmate was released from prison on 9 April while he was still being treated for Covid-19. On 13 April his condition worsened again despite days of treatment, and the next day he died after developing renal failure and gastrointestinal hemorrhage. Gergerlioğlu, a pulmonologist by career, said that Yıldırım’s medical records showed that this was clearly a Covid-19 death.
Gergerlioğlu said that Minister Gül had not mentioned in any of his announcements the name of the inmate who died of Covid-19 days after being released from prison. Gergerlioğlu said that according to hospital records, the man was treated for “viral pneumonia” and the official cause of his death was listed as renal failure, even though he showed symptoms of Covid-19 and was receiving treatment for it.
“Clearly there is information being hidden or scientifically unsound recording of the cases is going on. So even though he had Covid-19, other diagnoses were recorded and the case was covered up. But he died and the information is not secret anymore,” Gergerlioğlu said. “But furthermore,” he added, “Despite the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office’s announcement that it would be launching an investigation against those responsible [for the news coming out], and despite Anadolu Agency’s report, there is no such investigation. It’s an embarrassing picture: the state, the judiciary, the media, all becoming accomplices in this lie. All of this shows that many other Covid-19 cases [in prisons] are being kept secret.”
Constitutional Court must annul early release law
About the early release law, Gergerlioğlu said he found it to be discriminatory and hostile. “And even the Covid-19 pandemic did not make the political authority soften its hostile attitude,” Gergerlioğlu said. Noting that the controversial aspects of the early release law need to be urgently addressed, Gergerlioğlu said that the release of persons in pretrial detention should be a priority.
Explaining that there were about 780 children aged 0 to 6 in Turkey’s prisons, Gergerlioğlu said that most of them remained in prison in spite of the early release law. “It is not certain when this outbreak will end and these tragedies are continuing,” Gergerlioğlu added.
“Crime bosses have been released but 1 year old babies, mothers, patients suffering from all sorts of ailments, cancer patients, continued to stay behind bars. Journalists, writers, politicians, Selahattin Demirtaş, for whom many arrest warrants were issued over one accusation, Ahmet Altan, Mümtazer Türköne remained behind bars. This is a very hostile attitude towards politicians, journalists, persons accused of ‘membership’ or ‘propaganda’ charges under the Anti-Terror Law. We call on the government and the Justice Ministry to quit this discriminatory practice. The Constitutional Court should annul this discriminatory law,” Gergerlioğlu said.