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June 18, 2012, Monday

Prison tragedy

Turkey has never been an easy country to understand, and these days it is more confusing and full of contradictions than ever. The positive sense of direction generated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it first came to power a decade ago has largely been lost. Yes, the country is undoubtedly more prosperous, as evidenced by the construction boom that is rapidly transforming the İstanbul skyline, and it is more prominent on the international scene.

But on the democracy front, the gains of the early years are rapidly being lost as a state mentality and centralizing reflexes, which had loosened up for a while, reassert their dominance. Some red lines have shifted or disappeared, only to be replaced by new constraints. At a time when politicians like to refer to values, when they controversially seek to ban abortion and repeatedly praise large families, government and state officials often seem to display a casual disregard for the value and quality of human life, which appears to contradict their professed belief in its sanctity.

It was evident in the government’s totally inadequate response to the tragic killing of 34 civilians in Uludere in December. Official reaction to the deaths of 13 prisoners in a Şanlıurfa prison on Saturday was a bit more nuanced. At least Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged that conditions at the jail were not acceptable and the prison warden has apparently been transferred.

But whether the fire erupted as a result of infighting among prisoners or during a protest, the authorities had a responsibility to provide decent living conditions for the detainees and ensure their safety. Instead, it emerged that 18 detainees were crammed in a cell meant to house 12.

Summer heat in Şanlıurfa regularly reaches extreme levels. The Şanlıurfa Bar Association had issued a written warning a year ago, stating that the temperature reached up to 43-44 degrees in overcrowded cells where prisoners had to sleep in shifts, creating conditions that were “not fit for animals.”

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, Turkey’s detention centers housed a total of 132,369 people at the end of March, 41.4 percent of them either suspects awaiting trial or sentencing. Official figures put total capacity in penitentiaries at 125,000, which means that occupancy levels are at least at 105.6 percent. Minors account for 1.7 percent of Turkey’s prison population. A few months ago we learned that several youngsters had been molested at Pozanti Prison.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin has admitted that Turkey’s prison system is struggling to cope with the rising number of inmates. The Şanlıurfa prison, built for 600 people, apparently holds 1,000 prisoners. The government’s response to the lack of space is to build 196 new penitentiaries. But the real question is: Do all these people need to be behind bars? And why has Turkey’s prison population more than doubled in the past decade? In 2004, Turkish prisons held 57,930 inmates.

If crime has risen to such an extent in this country, serious studies should be carried out to find the roots of the problem and policies introduced to address them. Turkey’s average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has increased significantly in recent years, but income is very unequally distributed and in terms of social justice, the country has the worst record among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. This may well be a factor of rising criminality.

But aside from an increase in felony convictions, thousands of people have also been arrested on political charges in the past two-three years, on evidence often flimsy, if not downright bizarre, such as the case of Mehmet Tahir İlhan, a porter who is deaf, unable to speak and illiterate, but who has been charged with supporting terrorism based on his possession of half a lemon, which can apparently be used to mitigate the effect of pepper gas. Incidentally, when the families of the Şanlıurfa prisoners gathered to protest the prison fire, they too were met by policemen using pepper gas.

Detainees are not the only citizens of this country whose lives are needlessly lost. In May alone, 67 people died in work accidents. What happened to the focus on the rights of individuals that the AKP had promised? The power balance may have shifted in Turkey, but human rights, including the right to life, which is the most fundamental right, are still not protected as they should be.

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