Turkey: Human rights organisations call for immediate release of political prisoners

Amidst this pandemic, a disturbing pattern has emerged, where authoritarian countries are exploiting the global crisis to eliminate or inflict further suffering on political prisoners in some of the world’s worst prison conditions— the spaces most vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. More than ever, we must let these human rights defenders know they are not forgotten.

Turkey is an epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East, with over 170,000 confirmed cases,[1] although data compiled by the New York Times indicates that Erdogan’s government is concealing a far greater number.[2] The government maintains a tight seal on the flow of information and the public health ministry is the only body providing information on the virus. According to the most recent statistics, Turkey and China are the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with Turkey “having stamped out virtually all independent reporting.”[3] Since the outbreak began, at least seven journalists and editors-in-chief have been arrested—and others summoned for questioning— for reporting on coronavirus.[4]

The rapidly spreading disease presents greater concerns in Turkey’s prisons, which were already notorious for human rights abuses, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions before the pandemic. Now, the government is refusing to release political prisoners, putting their health in immediate danger.

On April 14, a day after the Turkish Justice Ministry announced the death of three prisoners to coronavirus,[5] parliament passed a law to release up to 90,000 prisoners, including those convicted of organised crime and attempted murder (early drafts included sex offenders).[6] However, the law specifically excludes thousands of human rights defenders, journalists, political leaders, academics, and lawyers targeted by Turkey’s overly broad “anti-terror” legislation.

Those left out of the release include prisoners at greatest risk of contracting coronavirus — many are over the age of 60, with serious preexisting health issues like chronic lung and heart conditions, cancer, and debilitating disabilities.[7] These prisoners are often already vulnerable to disease due to the dangerous prison conditions and widespread torture in detention.

Now, physical distancing is impossible in Turkish prisons, where as many as 28 prisoners are confined to 8-person wards or 10 prisoners to 3-person cells.[8] In Silivri Prison, as many as 39 prisoners, who all tested positive, were held in a 7 to 8-person quarantine ward.[9] Turkish authorities and guards have neglected to protect their prison population during the pandemic, failing to wear facemasks or provide prisoners with cleaning supplies or facemasks at all.[10] Reports have also highlighted the denial of proper medical care in prisons, including the failure to transfer prisoners to hospitals, provide adequate food, or process their medical complaints.[11]

We, the undersigned organisations, call on all governments, NGOs and the UN to pressure the Turkish government to immediately release its political prisoners and condemn its use of the pandemic to further target these human rights defenders.


Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Article 19

English PEN

Freedom House

Human Rights Foundation

Index on Censorship

PEN International

PEN Turkey

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights


[1] Turkey COVID-19 Corona Tracker, CoronaTracker, https://www.coronatracker.com/country/turkey/

[2] Carlotta Gall, Istanbul Death Toll Hints Turkey is Hiding a Wider Coronavirus Calamity, N.Y. Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/20/world/middleeast/coronavirus-turkey-deaths.html

[3] Elana Beiser, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt are the World’s Worst Jailers of Journalists, CPJ, https://cpj.org/reports/2019/12/journalists-jailed-china-turkey-saudi-arabia-egypt/

[4] Turkish journalists arrested for reporting Covid-19 cases, Reporters Without Borders, https://rsf.org/en/news/turkish-journalists-arrested-reporting-covid-19-cases

[5] Ali Kucukgocmen, Turkish Parliament Passes Bill to Free Thousands From Prison Amid Coronavirus, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-prisoners-idUSKCN21V241

[6] Moskowitz, E., Turkey to Free Thousands of Prisoners, but no Journalists. Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12122turkey-to-free-thousands-of-prisoners-but-no-journalists

[7] Turkey: COVID – 19 Puts Sick Prisoners at Grave Risk, Human Rights Watch, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/03/turkey-covid-19-puts-sick-prisoners-grave-risk; Kareem Fahim, Turkish Dissidents Remain Jailed as Thousands of Inmates are Released to Avoid Prison Epidemic, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkish-dissidents-remain-jailed-as-thousands-of-inmates-are-released-to-avoid-prison-epidemic/2020/04/22/8570e65a-83ea-11ea-81a3-9690c9881111_story.html

[8] Turkey: COVID – 19 Puts Sick Prisoners at Grave Risk, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/03/turkey-covid-19-puts-sick-prisoners-grave-risk

[9] Pelin Ünker, Are the measures against the epidemic in prisons insufficient, Deutsche Welle, https://www.dw.com/tr/cezaevlerinde-salg%C4%B1na-kar%C5%9F%C4%B1-tedbirler-yetersiz-mi/a-53502249 [in Turkish].

[10] Turkey: COVID – 19 Puts Sick Prisoners at Grave Risk, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/03/turkey-covid-19-puts-sick-prisoners-grave-risk

[11] BIA NEWS DESK, Covid-19 Spreading Fast in Turkey’s Prisons, Rights Defenders Warn, http://bianet.org/english/human-rights/224129-covid-19-spreading-fast-in-turkey-s-prisons-rights-defenders-warn