Burak Haylamaz, a human rights expert at the Human Rights Solidarity in the United Kingdom, spoke about COVID-19 and Right to Life in Prisons: Turkey Case. Burak gave an overview of the announcement of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and response from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). CPT immediately produced a set of principles for Member States to follow in their approach to people who are deprived of their liberty. As one of the signatory countries of the Council’s European Convention of Human Rights, Turkey is one of the addressees of these principles.
These principles were endorsed by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights by calling upon governments to respect fundamental freedoms and democratic standards while devising and implementing measures to fight the pandemic).
The key recommendations, Member States are required;
- First, to improve the conditions of prisons to the level of international health and safety standards, i.e. all medical and hygienic needs of detainees and convicts;
- Second, to ensure that prisoners have the access to medical care, medical equipment and medical staff at any time;
- Third, to ensure that restrictive measures can only be taken if they are necessary and proportionate. (such as video communication in lieu of family visit).
- Fourth, to ensure that the absolute nature of Article 3 ECHR (prohibition of torture and ill-treatment) is not violated. Hence, no limitation or excuse is acceptable if a taken measure lead to the infringement of the prohibition.
- Last but not least, MSs are required to use alternative means of deprivation, such as early release, probation, house arrest, if applicable. Read more…
The rationale behind these principles was inadequate level of health care and safety measures which could rapidly lead to situations falling within the scope of the term “inhuman and degrading treatment”. The question put across was to ask if the Turkish criminal legal system and authorities have achieved the implementation of these principles enshrined under the ECHR as a response to combat with the pandemic. In early spring, Covid19 cases were confirmed in prisons through the relatives of detainees who expressed the severe situation through Twitter. However, the first official statement about the spread of the pandemic in prisons was made on April 14th. Accordingly, there were 17 confirmed cases and three deaths at the time. Another statement came on May 22nd, 2020 where it was reported that a total of 82 confirmed case only in Silivri prison and one prisoner had died.
However, both opposition party representatives and human rights associations raised concern. They thought the government was not transparent about the infections and the number of COVID cases in and outside the prisons. The HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) produced a report supported by data from families of the affected and lawyers of prisoners. The report illustrates that the number of cases in prisons was much higher than the official statements. Health and safety measures were not being taken properly.
The report also underlined several problems:
- Wards and corridors are not cleaned regularly.
- Masks and gloves are not regularly distributed in prisons throughout the country.
- Most of the prisons are suffering from the overcrowded population that accelerates the spread of the virus.
- The food service in canteens were stopped, and the quality of the food sharply declined, which directly weaken the immune systems of prisoners; hence increase their chance of being affected by the virus. Even in the Ramadan when some inmates were fasting (prisoners were giving a soup and half-plate of rice which are insufficient for their immune system to combat with the pandemic).
- Prisoners who filed complaints in regard to COVID, were not listened to, instead of accessing to medical staff, authorities automatically gave them a medicine called “PLAQUENIL”, which is actually a medication used to combat malaria.
- The state’s website enables to check the recent medical situation of the prisoners. However, inmates’ relatives and lawyers reported that the website is misleading as it states that inmates took medical support, which is just a temperature check carried out by guardians.
Without doubt, the report illustrates the fact that Turkey had been practicing a violation under Article 3 ECHR by failing to comply with its positive obligation to prevent inhuman and degrading treatment. On the other hand, on April 14th, 2020, the government enacted a highly contested amnesty law that enabled the release of around 90,000 convicts. It is a contested law because of several reasons: It categorically excluded all political prisoners facing terrorism-related charges from its scope, which has been always interpreted broadly by the authorities. In other words, if the sick prisoner is a political prisoner charged with terrorism-related offences, then his/her release for medical reasons is next to impossible.
Secondly, it only applies to those whose sentences were finalised, hence, the release does not include those whose trial proceedings are at pending. The amnesty law has been strongly criticized because of its unfair and discriminatory nature, which contradict with Article 2 and 14 of the ECHR. This categorical blanket exclusion prevented the release of about an additional 50,000 prisoners, including journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, activists and all other political prisoners arrested or convicted with terrorism-related charges. On the other hand, the bill is problematic under Article 6 ECHR (fair trial provision) because detainees whose case at pending cannot benefit from the amnesty law and they cannot finalise their proceedings due to the closure of the judiciary.