Early parole reforms in Turkey put political prisoners at increased risk

A new early parole bill in Turkey had the potential to improve the country’s human rights track record—but instead, it leaves political prisoners even worse off.



 Protestors gather in front of the Palace of Justice in Istanbul to show support for critical journalists who were jailed for "collaborating with terrorist organizations" in 2016. Sedat Suna/EFE.


Since 2018, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Turkey—a de-facto ally of the country’s ruling party, AKP—has been calling for an early parole bill which would secure release of its supporters, including the notorious mafia leader, Alaattin Çakıcı. In addition, these early parole amendments do not apply to those charged with terrorism offences, most of whom are actually political prisoners. But the government has ignored all national and international calls to respect human rights, amending early parole and probation only in ways that are politically convenient to the ruling party, and putting political prisoners at risk not only of human rights violations but also of contracting COVID-19.

Initially, conflicting opinions between AKP and MHP on the scope of the bill, and the government’s concern about possible reaction from voters, delayed the enactment of the bill for two years. But when COVID-19 hit Turkey—there are currently 190,000 infections and more than 5,000 deaths as of June 25th—the ruling party and MHP hastily commenced the legislation procedure and passed the Bill on April 13th known as Law No. 7242.

Had the Turkish government observed the principle of equality and not discriminated against political prisoners, this Bill had the potential to improve the country’s track record with human rights violations. But by expressly excluding political prisoners from the Bill, the ruling party, AKP, squandered this opportunity.

During the deliberation of the Bill, calls were made to the Turkish government by numerous organisations, such as national and international bar associations and human rights NGOs, who asked the government and its allies to treat all prisoners equally in terms of the Bill, and specifically not to discriminate against political prisoners—in line with recommendations of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

A closer look at indictments of thousands of people imprisoned under Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws, reveal that almost none of them were actually imprisoned for terrorist activity.

Before the Bill, convicted felons had to serve two thirds of a sentence, and could benefit from supervised release two years before completing those two thirds. For example, anybody sentenced to nine years in prison had to serve six years, but they could be eligible for parole at the end of the fourth year. This was not the case for those convicted under anti-terror provisions, who had to serve three quarters of their sentence and could be eligible for parole a year prior to completing those three quarters. Therefore, someone sentenced to nine years under anti-terror provisions can be freed after five years and nine months (69 months).

But the reform Bill actually left the “offenders of anti-terror laws” worse-off: it reduced the requirement (for all inmates other than terror offenders) to only needing to serve half the sentence, and it increased the period of supervised release from two to three years. So, after the amendments, any inmate—except so-called terror offenders—who was sentenced to nine years in prison could be freed after 18 months. But this period is still 69 months for so-called terror offenders.

Type of Inmate

Given Sentence

Before Amendment Dated 15 April 2020

After Amendment

Terror-Offender

9 years

Prisoner can be freed with parole after 69-month incarceration.

Same

Other

9 years

Prisoner can be freed with parole after 48-month incarceration.

Prisoner can be freed with parole after 18-month incarceration.

 

It may sound reasonable to exclude terrorists from such legislation, but Turkey’s persistent abuse of its anti-terror laws and the country’s ever-diminishing rule of law, mean that tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned without any evidence of actual terrorist activity.

While terrorism offences often heighten emotional responses amongst the public and attract public calls for vengeance and justice, in Turkey the label of “terror offence” has been commonly used to silence political critics—and not to punish actual violent terrorists. For example, with this new Bill, inmates convicted of corruption, organized or violent crimes (e.g., Alaattin Cakici), and drug or sexually related offences were released. But the award winning author, Ahmet Altan, as well as hundreds of lawyers and journalists, remain in prison. The amendments also failed to provide measures to release those in pretrial detention, which is currently estimated at 43,000 people.

On July 8th, 2019, Dunja Mijatovic, the Commissioner for Human Rights of COE, said:

“(L)aws with an overly broad definition of terrorism and membership of a criminal organisation and the judiciary’s tendency to stretch them even further is not a new problem in Turkey, as attested in numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights … (T)his problem has reached unprecedented levels in recent times… these proceedings, combined with a wanton use of pre-trial detention, unjustly upend many persons’ lives in Turkey, including many human rights defenders.

According to a survey by the Arrested Lawyers Initiative, Turkish public prosecutors across the country charged 337,722 people for membership of an armed terrorist organisation between 2013 and 2018: 285,168 men and 52,435 women. Statistics for 2019 are not yet released, but it would be unsurprising to see the figure rise to 400,000 for that year.

Since 2015, the ECHR, the UNHRC, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in 13 separate decisions, have established that Turkey’s anti-terrorism provisions are at odds with international human rights treaties to which Turkey is party. A closer look at indictments of thousands of people imprisoned under Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws, reveal that almost none of them were actually imprisoned for terrorist activity, including the use of violence or threats. As Nacho Sanchez-Amor, a Turkish reporter of the European Parliament, said, on December 24th, 2019: “So, everyone is a terrorist? If you use [terrorism accusations] for anything and everyone, nothing and nobody is a terrorist at the end of the day.”

Had the Turkish government observed the principle of equality and not discriminated against political prisoners, this Bill had the potential to improve the country’s track record with human rights violations. 

On 11th June, the Main Opposition Party, CHP lodged an action for annulment with the Turkish Constitutional Court, in which CHP claimed that the principle of equality, the prohibition of discrimination, and the right to life have all been violated by this Bill.

However, the likelihood of justice is slim. The ruling party (AKP), changed the TCC’s structure twice, in 2010 and 2017. Today, twelve of the incumbent fifteen judges were selected either by former president Gül or by the incumbent president, Erdogan, who are both founders of the ruling AKP. Advocacy on behalf of political prisoners of Turkey is urgently needed, and a coordinated advocacy campaign needs to be started to support CHP’s action for annulment of discriminative provisions of Law no. 7242.

If the TCC finds the action for annulment admissible, it can annul the discriminative provisions instantly or postpone the effect of annulment for a certain time (no longer than a year), and allow new legislation (i.e., postponed annulment).  In the case of instant annulment, political prisoners can be freed considerably earlier than they can under the current provision. If annulment is postponed, they will have to wait for the new legislation. In any case, they need us not to forget them. The international community can support and build solidarity with these political prisoners by encouraging the TCC not to bow to political pressure, and to observe the universal principles enshrined by the international human rights treaties, customary international law, and the Constitution of Turkey.

 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: July 2, 2020

Ali Yildiz is a practicing attorney as the member of Ankara and the Dutch Brussels Bar, and the founder of the Arrested Lawyers Initiative.


 

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