In Turkish prisons, often praised by the Turkish government, a dire situation unfolded this year, with scarcely any rights left unviolated. Over the year, at least 4,904 human rights abuses were recorded, 34 prisoners died, and the release of 245 people was delayed. A notable recent event was the initiation of a hunger strike demanding the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently held in the high-security İmralı prison in Turkey.
Human rights violations in prisons are a major concern in Turkey, with a significant increase in such incidents since the declaration of the State of Emergency (OHAL) on 15 July 2016. This is especially true in S and Y type prisons, where isolation or solitary confinement practices were intensified to sever prisoners’ contact with the outside world.
During the tenure of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, 392 prisons, both open and closed, were shut down for failing to meet international standards and for conditions that hindered or made rehabilitation and improvement impossible. However, new prisons, often criticised for even more severe human rights violations, have replaced the closed facilities. As of 1 December 2023, Turkey has a total of 405 prisons, 274 of which are closed facilities, including 16 built in 2023.
Throughout 2023, Turkish prisons have been a focal point for human rights violations. In just the first nine months of 2023, the Human Rights Association (İHD) reported a staggering 4,904 violations against prisoners. These infringements cover a wide range of abuses, including violations of the right to life, maltreatment, beatings, torture, denial of healthcare access, communication bans, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to justice, unfair trials, degrading treatment, disciplinary punishments and forced naked searches.
These violations have had a profound impact, particularly on ill prisoners. According to the İHD, there are currently 1,517 sick prisoners, with 651 classified as severely ill. The Forensic Medicine Institute (ATK) has come under fire for its alleged politicised decisions, especially for issuing “can stay in prison” reports for these ill inmates. This policy has led to the deaths of some prisoners while incarcerated, and others shortly after being released in critical condition. Despite calls for intervention and action from human rights and legal organisations, notably İHD and the Association of Lawyers for Freedom (ÖHD), these concerns have largely been ignored.
The practice of postponing releases also persisted throughout the year. Following a judicial reform package passed by the Turkish Parliament in January 2021, Administrative Observation Boards in prisons have been acting akin to “parallel courts”. Based on assessments deeming prisoners “not well-behaved”, at least 245 individuals had their sentences extended or their releases delayed for periods ranging from 3 to 6 months.
The justifications for labelling prisoners as “not well-behaved” have been notably trivial and sometimes absurd, according to the rights organisations. Examples include reasons such as reading too many books, not meeting with the prison imam, lack of remorse, dancing, excessive water consumption, high electricity bills, not completing university courses while incarcerated, merely greeting visitors, and showing indifference to prison staff.
SITUATION IN İMRALI
The İmralı F Type High Security Prison, housing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, experienced some of the most severe human rights violations in Turkey in 2023.
The incommunicado detention of Öcalan and the other three prisoners in İmralı Prison continued in 2023 and has been going on for more than two and a half years.
Öcalan’s last contact with a family member was a few minutes of telephone conversation with his brother, which was interrupted in March 2021. The prisoners in İmralı were last able to meet their lawyers on 7 August 2019. Since then, all requests for legal meetings have been denied.
This situation sparked protests and actions throughout the year. On 10 October, a global campaign advocating for “freedom for Abdullah Öcalan and a resolution to the Kurdish issue” was initiated across 74 different locations worldwide. Additionally, political prisoners across 106 prisons commenced a hunger strike on 27 November, echoing similar demands for Öcalan’s freedom and the Kurdish issue’s resolution.