The jails in Turkey have long been mentioned in the same breath as inhumane actions and the breach of even the most basic rights, especially against the political prisoners. The violations have reached to unprecedented levels in parallel with the emergence of the current political-Islamist authoritarianism. The oppressive regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule instrumentalized the country’s legal system to muzzle the political dissidence, turning the prisons into concentration camps. The number of inmates behind the bars has reached historic highs. Hosting convicts much more than their capacities, the prisons, which were already substantially subpar, have fallen way below the minimum acceptable standards for human dignity. Patients in particular bore the most of the brunt of this precipitated deterioration of the prison conditions and the wrath of the Turkish regime against its opponents.
People are suffering from torments of negligence; even some have died as authorities have turned deaf ears to their cries of anguish while diseases and hardships of old age were gnawing at their flesh and bones. Stories of tragedies, heart-rending images of the victims who died in solitary confinement cells alone, miserable outcries of prisoners who sent letters after letters to human rights watch associations or reactions from international bodies were not enough to cause even a slightest move in the needle of the moral compass of the Turkish authorities. Erdoğan and his political allies, as well as their supporters, even demanded an increase in the pressure on the political prisoners. Even some judges who released a number of journalists due to the lack of evidence were expelled from their duties,1 while their replacements hastily ordered the arrest of these journalists even before they were let leave the prisons.
Even the photograph showing the frozen body of Mustafa Kabakçıoğlu, who was a deputy policy inspector dismissed in September 2016 for alleged membership to the Gülen movement and who died on a plastic chair in a cold, damp, single-person cell in the basement of Gümüşhane Penitentiary Institution2, did not cause any reaction other than weak public reactions. The photo, which was announced in a Parliamentary general session by HDP Kocaeli Deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, who spent almost his entire life fighting against human rights violations in Turkey, could not find its place even as news in the mainstream media under the intense pressure of the country’s autocratic administration. The Ministry of Justice did not even respond to a lawmaker’s questions. Let alone inspecting the negligence that led to the death of Kabakçıoğlu, the prosecution instead started an investigation into how his pictures were leaked.
In other occasions, no one was found responsible for the deaths of journalist Mevlüt Öztaş and director Fatih Terzioğlu, who caught cancer in prisons. They were not treated, were not given a timely postponement of execution and their release was delayed despite the reports that they could not stay in prisons. They both died. Old people in their 80s, incapable of taking care of their needs on their own and in need of someone’s care at any moment, have been ruthlessly left at the mercy of death in prisons, despite no serious charges being brought against them.
There is a banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt conceptualized it. Officials don’t even think about whether their actions are evil. They do torture with a great sense of duty, enthusiasm, and civic consciousness. Every political prisoner they cause their suffering, misery, even death, is just another brick in the wall of patriotism.
The power partnership led by Erdoğan is acting with such an approach in which cruelty towards certain groups has become so banal and common. In Turkish prisons, complaints that the right to life of prisoners, especially political convicts, are disregarded, and that prison administrations are mostly indifferent in the face of their health problems, can only cause muffled reverberations in the domestic and international public opinion. In general, the report in your hand aims to contribute to the chorus to shatter the exasperating silence against the agonies of the ailing prisoners. It aims to raise a voice on behalf of the silenced masses captive in the Turkish prisons from all walks of life. In particular, this report aims to carve a mark in the history, registering the records of atrocities against the people who had no crime other than refusing to bow to authoritarianism. All in all, this report aims to hold a magnifying glass on the problems experienced by sick prisoners by compiling the information reflected in the media, the activities and reports of the associations operating in this field, official and unofficial statistics as well as the opinions and experiences of the prisoners and their relatives.
THE CURRENT SITUATION OF PRISONS
Under the political Islamist Erdoğan regime, which has been ruling Turkey since 2002, the number of prisons reached the highest level in history. With Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) abandoning libertarian discourse and policies and turning to one-man rule in the country, it is striking that prison populations have also increased. The prisons were filled with political prisoners far exceeding their current capacity especially after the failed coup attempt in 2015, with the crackdown carried out against the members of the Gülen movement, an international, voluntary-based education and dialogue community, which the Turkish government designated as a terror organization after the corruption allegations in 2013.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle. Erdoğan dismissed the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government. He initiated a massive witch hunt against the members of the movement, also known as Hizmet, all across the country and even the world. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following an abortive putsch on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
The Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TurkStat) numbers demonstrate that the number of detainees and convicts, which was 59,429 in 2002, increased approximately fivefold in 2019.3 As detailed in Table 1, there were 56,000 detainees and convicts in prisons in 1970, while in 1972 the number was 64,889. The number of detainees and convicts, which was 70,172 in 1980, when the 12 September Military Coup took place, increased to 79,786 in 1981. If it is taken into account that the prison population remained below 80,000 even after the 1980 coup, which took place after intense internal conflicts, the awfulness of the current situation of the prisons will be more clearly comprehended.
To put it more concretely, with respect to Turkey’s population in 1980-81, 1,813 out of every 1 million people were in prison. Nevertheless, as of today, 2,625 people out of every 1 million are living behind bars.
According to the data of the Ministry of Justice the total number of all detainees and convicts in Turkish prisons was 287,094 as of the end of June 2021. Another set of data, announced by the Ministry of Justice as of April 2021, shows that there are a total of 371 penal institutions in Turkey and the capacity of these institutions is 250,576 people, indicating an approximate f igure of 15 percent overcapacity that causes prison wards to be overpacked for the most part. Of these prisons, 264 are closed prisons, 80 are independent open prisons, 4 are children’s education centers, 9 are closed for women, 7 are for women and 7 are closed for children.
The Turkish state doesn’t pay attention to objections to violations of rights in prisons that house detainees/convicts above their capacity. In a way that can be interpreted as an indication of the politicization of the judiciary in Turkey, individual applications to the Constitutional Court (AYM) cannot yield legal and humanitarian results. For instance, Mehmet Hanefi Baki, who was detained in Osmaniye No. 1 T-Type Closed Prison, made an individual application to the AYM after his formal complaints that the A-38 ward where he was detained housed more detainees than its capacity were not heeded. Baki claimed that the ban on ill-treatment was violated because he was kept in a crowded room in the Penitentiary Institution. The prison administration’s defense was to say that “The average number of rooms A-38 is 25, the per capita usage area is 4.25 square meters, the number of bunk beds allocated for sleeping and resting in the ward is 16, and about nine detainees had to sleep on floor beds due to overcapacity.” Although the administration admitted that the ward was hosting detainees beyond its capacity, the Constitutional Court did not give a decision of violation of rights in the hearing dated 27 July 2018.
There is no official data on how many of them are sick with chronic and severe diseases or how many inmates are too old to stay in prisons. However, there is some data that certain civil society organizations have mustered through their own research. For example, the Human Rights Association (İHD), one of the associations that carries out the most serious and comprehensive studies on the victimization of prisoners, says that 1,605 patients, 604 of whom are seriously ill, are fighting for their lives in prisons across Turkey. The already very negative approach and indifference towards sick and old prisoners became much more severe, especially during the new type of coronavirus epidemic called COVID 19, which affected the whole world throughout 2020 and most of 2021. A report launched by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) showed that the number of prisoners who lost their lives in prisons between 2002 and 2018 was 3,432. A relatively limited list, compiled from media coverage of deaths of prisoners, can be found in Table 3 at the end of this report.
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