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Coronavirus: Rights groups urge Turkey to release jailed journalists and activists

In joint statement, more than 25 organisations say Turkey's overcrowded prisons pose health threat to inmates
Death toll from Covid-19 has reached 131 in Turkey (Reuters/File photo)

Several rights organisations have called on authorities in Turkey to release journalists and activists citing the risk of contracting the coronavirus in prison. 

"The undersigned organisations call on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release journalists, human rights defenders and others who have been charged or convicted simply for exercising their rights," the groups said in a joint statement on Monday.

More than two dozen organisations signed the plea, including Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

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Earlier this month, Turkey introduced a law that would pave the way for the release of nearly 100,000 prisoners - nearly one-third of Turkey's prison population - amid the spread of the pandemic.

The rights groups welcomed reports of the new law on Monday, but said it does not go far enough to protect jailed journalists.

"Under the new law, pregnant women and prisoners over 60 with documented health issues will be placed under house arrest," the statement said.

"Individuals convicted of a small number of crimes, including on terrorism-related charges, will not be eligible for reduced sentences. The draft law does not apply to those held in pre-trial detention or whose conviction is under appeal." 

They slammed Turkey for routinely applying pre-trial detention on suspects not-yet convicted of a crime.

"Overcrowding and unsanitary facilities already pose a serious health threat to Turkey’s prison population of nearly 300,000 prisoners and about tens of thousands of prison staff," the statement said. "That will only be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic."

'Unprecedented risk'

Turkey has taken strong measures to contain the virus - closing down schools, suspending flights from dozens of countries and imposing a curfew on senior citizens.

The government announced a $15.5bn economic aid package to assist people affected by the financial decline caused by the pandemic.

The rights groups urged on Monday the immediate release of prisoners who are elderly or suffer from medical conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19.

According to official figures, Turkey has lost 131 people to the virus with more than 9,200 confirmed infections. 

After the 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey emerged as one of the top jailers of journalists in the world. Last year, Turkey imprisoned 47 journalists, according to CPJ.

Turkish authorities say they have arrested thousands for their links to the Gulen movement, which is designated by the Turkish government as a terror group and accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.

But some rights advocates accuse Ankara of cracking down on dissent and targeting activists and government critics who may not have been involved in the 2016 plot.

"Thousands of people are behind bars for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Now they are also faced with an unprecedented risk to their health," the rights organisations said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.