Amidst this pandemic, a disturbing pattern has emerged, where authoritarian countries are exploiting the global crisis to eliminate or inflict further suffering on political prisoners in some of the world’s worst prison conditions— the spaces most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. More than ever, we must let these human rights defenders know they are not forgotten.
On April 14, a day after the Turkish Justice Ministry announced the death of three prisoners to COVID-19, parliament passed a law to release up to 90,000 prisoners, including those convicted of organized crime and attempted murder (early drafts included sex offenders). The law, however, specifically excludes tens of thousands of those imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights, including human rights defenders, journalists, political leaders, academics, and lawyers targeted by Turkey’s overly broad “anti-terror” legislation.
Turkey is an epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East, with over 180,000 confirmed cases, although data compiled by the New York Times indicates that Erdogan’s government is concealing a far greater number. The government maintains a tight seal on the flow of information and the public health ministry is the only body providing information on the virus. According to the most recent statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey and China are the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with Turkey “having stamped out virtually all independent reporting.” Since the outbreak began, at least seven journalists and editors-in-chief have been arrested—and others summoned for questioning— for reporting on COVID-19.