Can Bahadır Yüce writes on Turkey’s response to coronavirus, and calls for the release of at-risk political prisoners

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While COVID-19 is indiscriminate, its impact has not been equal. The poor suffer more than the rich; the threat to the old is graver than to the young; urban communities are more vulnerable than their rural counterparts. There is one particular group, above all, who are most defenceless: the incarcerated. Prisons are coronavirus hotspots. Across the world, millions closed in them are in imminent danger. Faced with calls from human rights organisations to free sick and vulnerable inmates, countries have responded in starkly different ways. There are those, like the United States, that have largely ignored these warnings. There are those, like the Philippines, that have released prisoners en masse. And then there’s the curious case of Turkey.

In recent weeks, the Turkish government has freed more than 45,000 prisoners – almost a sixth of the  incarcerated population. Political prisoners, however – journalists, intellectuals, lawyers, teachers jailed on terrorism charges – have been exempt. In the terms of the bill passed last month, violent criminals may be released, while political prisoners remain locked-up. If you are a convicted murderer, you can be freed; if you are a journalist who has criticised President Erdoğan on social media, you cannot.

COVID-19 cases in prisons are increasing. In Silivri Prison, the notorious penitentiary that hosts hundreds of journalists and political prisoners, the spread grows day-by-day. As of May 12, more than 191 cases were reported, with eight inmates in intensive care. There are also concerns of underreporting: no reliable information comes from the authorities, prison visits are cancelled, and the state-controlled media look the other way.  Silivri Prison is notoriously beset by poor conditions, where more than 40 people are packed into some seven-people cells – prime territory for a pandemic.

Living in that territory, today, is Osman Kavala, the 62-year-old philanthropist and civil rights defender who will approaches 1000 days in jail. Then there is the writer and journalist Ahmet Altan, who is 70 and at-risk, serving a ten-and-a-half year sentence. During this pandemic, it is hard not to think about his prison memoir, I Will Never See the World Again, and quite how urgent its message feels. There is Hidayet Karaca, former head of a national TV station, who has been in jail for over five years and is in danger due to deteriorating health. And there is the visual journalist Fevzi Yazıcı, who remains in solitary confinement. A few weeks ago, Yazıcı sent a drawing from his jail cell to the world. The drawing, titled ‘Injustice’, reminded me of Picasso’s Guernica. It is reported that a German officer who saw Guernica asked Picasso, ‘Did you do that?’ to which the artist replied, ‘No, sir, you are the one who did it’. Yazıcı’s drawing, a product of a flawed justice system, says: The Turkish authorities did this.

The threat of COVID-19 looms large in Turkey’s other prisons, too.  Selahattin Demirtaş, the prominent political prisoner and the former co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party, remains in Edirne Prison, and is considered high risk due to his health problems. Nedim Türfent of Dicle News Agency has completed his fourth year in Van Prison this week. This is not an Arthur Koestler novel – this is Turkey in 2020.

Turkey’s government is using the pandemic for political vengeance. This is the cruellest of totalitarian methods. Turkey has been on an authoritarian track for some time. While the Erdoğan regime has been labelled as fascist, perhaps the word has been overused. Authoritarianism is often conflated with fascism. But how else can one describe leaving vulnerable people – whose only crime is political opposition – to suffer and die in prison? Now, we cannot deny that authoritarian tendencies have turned into fascism.

Coronavirus has been a strange experience for all of us. For some, it is about work or education; for many, it is mostly about the economy. But for imprisoned people, it is a matter of life and death. People have compared lockdown to being caged. But we are free; we can protect ourselves. If we are lucky, we can even work from home, and avoid physical contact. How can inmates protect themselves in 40-people wards? I hope this ubiquitous experience of isolation makes us more empathetic to imprisoned people; that is one good that may emerge from our current moment.

The law that was passed by the Turkish parliament is flawed and unjust. In Edmund Burke’s words, bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. But the situation can still be resolved, and lives can still be saved. The government must free vulnerable political prisoners now. Their survival may rest solely on a a single decision by the Turkish government. We must call, now, for this decision. We must speak up for the defenceless. The danger is immediate and real. The clock-hands are moving. And there is a lethal difference between late and too late. 

Can Bahadır Yüce is a poet and academic. He teaches history at the University of Tennessee.

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