Opposition party CHP will apply to Ankara's Constitutional Court for a revision of the controversial amnesty law

Beyond the Turkish amnesty in times of coronavirus

AFP/OZAN KOSE - A Turkish soldier stands guard at the Silivri prison court in Istanbul

The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Turkey reflects the political and social polarization that exists in the country founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In recent years, Erdogan has been able to assume all the power of a Turkey that, for several years, has been very divided in the polls. However, power is not long-lasting. In 2019, Erdogan suffered a serious setback when he lost the elections in some of the big cities such as Ankara or Istanbul. 

The political division and lack of capacity to negotiate with the opposition has forced opposition parties to go to the Ankara Constitutional Court to seek the annulment of a controversial amnesty law, that allows the release of approximately 90,000 prisoners. The aim of this new law, which excludes journalists and politicians, is to decongest prisons, in view of the imminent outbreak of coronavirus, in which more than 1,500 people have died.

The decision of the People's Republican Party (CHP) to appeal to Turkey's Supreme Court came just hours after the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), supported the bill, which was passed with 279 votes in favor and 51 against.

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The only crime committed by some of the journalists, intellectuals and academics who are locked up in Turkey's prisons has been to show their opinion. For this reason, international organizations such as Amnesty International have welcomed measures to reduce prison overcrowding, but also criticized the fact that this law doesn't affect all prisoners equally. The main opposition parties have also joined in this complaint and fear that the release of certain criminals will lead to an increase of criminality. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party have repeatedly accused Gülen's movement of being behind the military coup that took place four years ago, something the latter firmly denies. Since then, Ankara has investigated more than 130,000 public officials and ordered the pre-trial detention of nearly 50,000 people, including academics, lawyers and journalists. The Ankara Executive doesn't understand either ideologies or opinions. That is why many Kurdish activists and politicians who, according to the state, have links with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have also ended up in prison in recent years. 

La Policía turca hace guardia fuera de la prisión de Silivri

Before this law was passed, a deputy of the CHP Turan Aydogan lamented that "those who criticize are locked up". "You forgive the mafia and criminal gangs, but you don't forgive journalists who write the truth, and you don't forgive those who want peace," he added. Mustafa Yeneroglu, a former AKP deputy who is now a member of the new Party for Democracy and Progress (DEVA), said the amnesty bill further deepens divisions in society. "There is extreme polarization," he said on the social network Twitter. 

The CHP leader has also criticized the Government for excluding journalists and activists from the content of the amnesty law. "This bill has ruined the public's awareness of justice. Those who had knives and guns in their hands will be released. However, journalists whose weapon is a pen will remain in prison. No morals and conscience would approve of this," he said. 

El presidente del Partido Popular Republicano (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, durante la reunión del grupo de su partido en la Gran Asamblea Nacional de Turquía (TBMM) en Ankara

This law would enable at least 90,000 people imprisoned for murder, rape or other charges to leave prison early by serving the rest of their sentence under house arrest or on conditional release. Meanwhile, journalists, activists and politicians imprisoned on terrorism charges would remain behind bars, along with those convicted of organised crime, premeditated murder and certain sexual offences, Ahval News reported last March, while the bill was being debated in parliament. Instead, the AKP and the MHP responded to the opposition by stating that this law does not provide any kind of amnesty for prisoners, but rather reduces or changes the execution of their sentences. 

The CHP and other opposition parties find it difficult to achieve the goal of revising this bill, because of Erdogan's personal involvement in it and because of the members that make up the Constitutional Court, according to Ahval News. The Constitutional Court is composed of 15 judges, including 12 appointed by Erdogan and the two previous presidents, Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and three elected by Parliament.

Un hombre camina en la plaza desierta de Taksim en Estambul, el 12 de abril de 2020
Journalism in times of threats and censorship 

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute (IPI) has stressed the need that imprisoned journalists "should not be excluded from the Turkish government's plan to release thousands of prisoners" as part of its response plan to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was stated in an official statement in which they also warned that while "the independence and courage of these journalists has already cost them their freedom, it may now cost them their lives," according to Oliver Money-Kyrle, head of IPI's European programs and advocacy. "Continued imprisonment would almost certainly reduce access to urgent medical care. We demand that all journalists be released immediately," he urged in a statement issued at the end of March. 

In the same document, they warned that prisons in Turkey are 121% over capacity, which poses a serious threat to the health of prisoners. The same organization said that of the 92 journalists currently in prison, more than 50 per cent have been accused of terrorism. Over the past few days, several human rights organizations have launched a campaign on social networks with the hashtag #GazetecilerDeEvdeKalsın (Journalists should also be able to go home) calling for the release of imprisoned journalists as part of the global #StayHome campaign for self-isolation, according to this document. 

For his part, IPI Turkey National Committee Chair and Executive Board member Kadri Gürsel regretted that Erdogan's draft law considers that "the lives of journalists are expendable". "Journalists, like everyone else, are at great risk of getting coronavirus disease," Gürsel added.

El puente y la torre de Gálata y al fondo Estambul, el 12 de abril de 2020
Next objective: Türken Foundation

In addition, the main opposition party has submitted a parliamentary motion requesting an investigation into the origin of the donations made to the Türken Foundation, a US-based organization linked to the party led by Erdogan, according to the digital Duval English. In 2019, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service reported that the foundation had received donations worth $56.5 million since its inception.

The CHP leader has asked the foundation - during an interview on channel T24 - to return the money it received from Turkish political institutions. "A total of 56.5 million dollars was transferred to the Türken Foundation between 2014 and 2018. It is necessary to investigate how these transfers were made and by whom. In 2018 alone, some 22.5 million dollars were transferred from Turkey to this foundation," explained CHP MP Tekin Bingöl during a speech in parliament on April 14, according to Duval News. "Of these 22.5 million dollars, only 70,000 are donations, so what is the rest of the money? They are public funds transferred from Turkey. It is not possible to prove or defend otherwise," he added.