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Turkey to release thousands of prisoners as coronavirus sweeps through jails

As COVID-19 ravages Turkish prisons, Ankara is pushing forward a law that will reduce the prison population by a third.

With a COVID-19 outbreak now confirmed in Turkey’s prisons, the country’s parliament has approved a new law that would relax sentencing requirements and reduce the prison population by nearly a third, despite criticism that inmates held on terrorism charges will not eligible for early release. 

Backed by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the allied Nationalist Movement Party, which together hold a majority in the 600-seat parliament, the bill passed with 279 votes in favor and 51 against. 

The legislation, which temporarily or permanently releases about 90,000 inmates, will now go to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for approval. Under the bill, those eligible for house arrest will remain at home until May 31. The justice minister can extend that period three times by a maximum of two months each if the coronavirus crisis continues. 

The legislation excluded tens of thousands of political prisoners jailed on terrorism charges for alleged ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party or the Fethullah Gülen movement, which the government blames for an attempted coup in 2016. 

Rights organizations and opposition groups have called on the Turkish government to unconditionally release journalists, academics and others jailed for their political views or swept up in Turkey’s sweeping post-coup crackdown. 

“Those convicted in unfair trials under Turkey’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws are also now condemned to face the prospect of infection from this deadly disease,” Amnesty International’s Turkey campaigner Milena Buyum said in a statement Monday. 

“Turkey’s government must do the right thing and immediately release those who are imprisoned solely for expressing their peaceful views,” said Buyum. 

Notable political prisoners include Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chairs of Turkey's pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala and writer Ahmet Altan. 

The novel coronavirus has already spread to nearly half a dozen prisons in Turkey, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said Monday. Of the 17 inmates with confirmed cases, three have died from the virus. 

Turkey has among the fastest rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world. On Monday, the country’s infections rose by 4,093 to 61,049 and the death toll hit 1,296, said Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. 

On Tuesday, Turkish politician and leader of Independent Turkey Party Haydar Bas died from COVID-19.