Prison deaths highlight 'broken' justice system
The deaths of 13 in a prison fire in Sanliurfa triggered renewed criticism over inhumane conditions amid calls for government accountability.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 19/06/12
The director of the Sanliurfa high security prison was removed from his position on Monday (June 18th) after two fires set over three days killed 13 inmates and injured many others.
On Monday, a protest fire broke out in the juvenile section of the prison, injuring 14 inmates. No deaths were reported.
Monday's blaze followed one on Saturday, in which 13 prisoners lost their lives and five others were injured. Inmates reportedly set their bedding alight to protest conditions at the prison.
Prisoners in Adana, Gaziantep and Ceyhan jails set fires in support of Sanliurfa on Monday.
The deaths and protest fires again expose the problem of overcrowding and inhumane conditions in prisons. Cemal Babaoglu, head of the Human Rights Association's (HRA) Sanliurfa branch, said the tragic incident highlighted how the justice system has become "broken" in recent years.
The prison was designed to hold 350, but according to the official numbers, over 1,000 inmates are held. Some dormitories hold up to 30 prisoners, more than three to four times the designed capacity. Prisoners complain of taking shifts to sleep in often extreme weather conditions with little ventilation or sanitation.
In September 2010, a political prisoner in Sanliurfa set himself on fire after he was transferred to the ordinary prisoners' section, triggering protests from other inmates. Last year, the HRA and other organisations filed several complaints to the justice ministry over conditions in the prison, but no action was taken.
"The government shouldn't have waited until this unpleasant incident happened [to react]," Babaoglu said. "No matter what [the prisoners] have done in the past, they're human beings."
The fire is the deadliest prison incident since December 2000, when security forces stormed 20 jails in a bid to force political prisoners to end a hunger strike against the conditions of their detention. Thirty prisoners died.
But officials claim that Saturday's fire has no relation to political prisoners. Records released by authorities show that of the 13 who were killed, three had been sentenced while ten were waiting trial, all for crimes related to robbery. Ibrahim Ayhan, a pro-Kurdish BDP parliamentarian, was among several other Kurdish inmates in the prison, but was reportedly not injured in the fire.
"There are absolutely no connections to the political context here. This is an unpleasant incident that occurred after a row broke out among prisoners in a dormitory, as a result of expansion of a simple disagreement," Yahya Akman, a governing AK Party MP from Sanliurfa, told SES Türkiye.
He said investigators are doing everything possible to shed light on the incident.
Akin Birdal, a Kurdish human-rights defender and former BDP member of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, said he doubted a full investigation would be conducted because independent investigators have no access to prisons.
"The government is the only one responsible for the incident," he said. "The authorities should launch an open investigation over every single detail, including into possible delays by authorities or firefighters in responding to the fire," he told SES Türkiye.
Babaoglu insisted that not only is there a judicial problem, but there is also a political problem.
"Every day Turkish police arrest at least 50 men to make sure that there is no criticism or political voice left in the country. While in prison, they have absolutely no rights left; they even cannot sleep at the same time, because there is no room inside."
Akman said the government doesn't deny there is a problem of overcrowding in prisons, but that it is a temporary problem. He said the government has commissioned 196 new prisons to be built throughout the country, including a large facility in Sanliurfa, within the next five years.
Turkey's current prison population is over 130,000, the highest in recent years, according to justice ministry data.