As Turkish citizens struggle in the face of rising COVID-19 infections and on-and-off curfews imposed by their fickle government, Ankara has given a fearful public yet another source of anxiety. In a bid to prevent an outbreak in prisons, the Turkish parliament last week passed a law allowing the early release of up to 90,000 convicts. Those to be set free include an infamous mob boss and reportedly violent criminals.

Turkey has a mass incarceration problem. With around 300,000 inmates, its prisons are overcrowded and thus at high risk of a coronavirus outbreak. Already, a reported three prisoners have died from the deadly virus; 17 others are infected. The new law ostensibly aims to halt the contagion.

But while the law will put some 90,000 criminals back on the streets, it does not extend to an equal number of people in pretrial detention. Nor will it release some 50,000 “terrorism” suspects. Since 2016, Turkey has jailed tens of thousands of peaceful citizens, including journalists, politicians, rights defenders, and students, under the broad and vaguely defined language of the “terrorism” law. Compounding the injustice of these political charges, many such detainees—such as Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—have health conditions that increase their vulnerability to the virus.

Opposition parties and human rights groups are outraged at the new law and at how the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rammed it through parliament. The AKP held a pro-forma consultation with the two main opposition parties—the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and the HDP—but accepted none of their recommendations. The AKP and its ultranationalist ally, the National Action Party (MHP), debated the bill only among themselves then rushed it through, relying on their own votes (save one accidental vote by an exhausted CHP deputy). This is just the latest example of how the weakened Turkish parliament today functions mostly like a rubber-stamp for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s agenda.

On Wednesday, the CHP brought a case before the Constitutional Court to review the legislation. Legal experts expect the court to rule that the early release should be expanded to include more prisoners. This would render the new law more equitable for inmates, but it might also come at a political cost for the CHP, which an alarmed public may see as rooting for the freeing of even more criminals.

This prisoner release is yet another illustration of the priorities of Erdoğan’s regime. Under the guise of strengthening public health, Erdoğan’s government would rather set free tens of thousands of convicts who could threaten public safety than release those whom he sees as opponents or competitors. As lawyers and rights organizations have warned for weeks, the partial amnesty will only affirm a sense of impunity among Turkey’s would-be criminals. Those who seek a more democratic Turkey will continue to be unjustly locked up, now under even more dangerous conditions.


Merve Tahiroğlu is POMED’s Turkey Program Coordinator.

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