2011-08-15

Turkey's prison population growth concerns human rights groups

Turkey's current prison population tops 124,000, the highest in recent years, according to Justice Ministry data.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for Southeast European Times -- 15/08/11

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The latest edition of the World Prison Population List, compiled by the London-based research group International Centre for Prison Studies, found the number of people held in Turkey's prisons doubled between 2006 and 2010.

The increase has created concern among domestic and international human rights campaigners, who have rung alarm bells over prison overcrowding.

"The legal system has come up with a powerful method in our country to punish every suspect, even sometimes children, by jailing them," chairman of the Istanbul-based Human Rights Association (HRA) Ozturk Turkdogan tells SETimes, adding that the problem is that Turkish judges keep nearly every suspect for years behind bars until the end of the trial investigations.

"Almost 47% of the imprisoned are held there without court decisions," he argues.

Approximately 7,000 prisoners are being held for political reasons, according to HRA research.

"Turkey still has authoritarian laws on freedom of speech, an anti-terrorism law and an intolerant state and government that put a lot of mainly Kurdish reporters behind bars," says Marc Guillet, an Istanbul-based Dutch journalist and lecturer.

"There have been scores of arrests of suspects -- military and civilian -- allegedly involved in conspiracies [Ergenekon, Balyoz, etc.] to overthrow the government," he tells SETimes.

Gokhan Capoglu, head of the Ankara-based Anatolian Strategic Research Foundation, is worried that the trials sometimes take so long that the defendants die in prison.

In the Ergenekon case alone, "4 people lost their lives in prisons, waiting for their sentence. This is unjust," he tells SETimes, accusing the courts of being politicised.

Besides political imprisonments, Guillet cites other reasons for the increase in prison populations. "The laws on honour killings have been updated and not only the murderer, but all the family members who conspired with him to commit the murder get much tougher sentences," he said.

Mustafa Sonmez, an investigative journalist, believes both unjust courts and the rise of criminal activities are to be blamed as well.

"Hunger, unemployment problems, deteriorating income distribution, distrust of the justice system, and trends encouraging the mafia are the major factors behind the problem," he tells SETimes.

"Robbery, forgery and participation in armed crimes are the most popular cases when judges imprisoned suspects right away," he adds.

Each year thousands of people get imprisoned for opposing military service and other laws, Sonmez adds.

"The judges were always sympathising with the political government in Turkey, but during the last nine years, due to the increased strength of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the sympathy [of the judges] turned into dependence [on the government]," Turkdogan explains.

Meanwhile, authorities in Ankara disagree and describe the legal system procedures "as an element of Turkey's democratisation and civilianisation".

"We have been implementing changes in the laws, even in the constitution, making the courts more independent, which was strongly supported by Turkish people," Yilmaz Tunc, AKP MP and spokesman for parliament's Justice Commission, tells SETimes, adding that prison population growth "is evidence of justice, not a lack of it".

"Those who are accusing the courts of not being independent are, on the contrary, trying to influence the judges' decisions," he says.

"Even if sometimes the trials take too long, it has nothing to do with political involvement. Each case has many complications, evidence that requires verification and suspects that need to be questioned," he says, arguing that the Ergenekon case has had over 200 court sessions so far.

Meanwhile, Tunc says, judicial reforms will continue in the future, despite the opposition being against it.

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