Critics fear a pandemic explosion in Turkish prisons

COVID-19 may turn out to be a codename for testing Erdogan’s regime to the limit as the pandemic forces a tense and mistrustful society to distance itself even further from those who rule the country and their stunning hubris.

So, the coronavirus pandemic has shown its brutal face in Turkey as well. After a long period of silence by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose choice to remain out of the spotlight for about a week raised many eyebrows, the number of coronavirus cases declared by the Ministry of Health points to a surge.

As a result, those who mistrusted the system for its lack of transparency raised their voices even louder.

As of March 20, 359 people in Turkey were confirmed as being infected with coronavirus, with 168 diagnoses recorded in the preceding 24 hours. There have been four confirmed deaths, although that number was predicted to rise geometrically, given the alarm being raised by doctors.

The government agrees. Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said he expected the number of coronavirus diagnoses to peak within two weeks. After a remarkable hesitation in recent weeks, authorities placed about 10,000 people under quarantine.

However, much of the official attention seems disproportionately focused on economic measures rather than tackling the spread of the virus. Ankara’s plan to deal with the pandemic, given the hardships already being faced by Turkey’s embattled economy, has been exposed amid a quickly weakening local currency and soaring unemployment.

All of this points to an uphill battle. Even Erdogan’s recent announcement of a 100 billion lira ($15.4 billion) package to support Turkey’s economy offered more questions than answers, with experts wondering how the envisioned funding will be financed. Many predicted a rapidly rising inflation rate.

On the political level, Turkey’s hard-line administration is demonstrating its well-known reflexes. Erdogan’s much-anticipated speech March 19 was heavily coloured by religion and framed by the elements of a Friday sermon rather than based on concrete preventive steps, which did not go beyond “wash your hands and salute each other from a distance” rhetoric.

“The best way not to fight the epidemic is not to be caught by the virus,” he said, stating the obvious.

However, his broader strategy couldn’t be clearer: Focus on his devout base, even if this falls short of his constitutional duty to embrace the whole nation at a time of global crisis that defies borders.

On the social level, there were facts that surfaced and others that remain question marks.

First, there is the defiant mentality of fatalism that seems deep-rooted in the conservative psyche. Although the mighty Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs), which has more than 100,000 imams on its payroll, decided to close the mosques for Friday prayers and community gatherings, many deeply pious men — apparently influenced by the myth of Erdogan as saviour — expressed indifference, some openly protesting the ban on entering mosques.

The element of religion revealed the main source of the spread of the virus. It was the people returning from umrah — pilgrimage in Mecca — who, despite authorities’ early knowledge of the outbreak, were allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia. About 15,000 pilgrims returned to Turkey during this period and, without being put under quarantine, mingled with their relatives and neighbours. When the next batch of returning pilgrims, around 7,000, were placed in confinement, it seemed too little, too late.

So deep was the ignorance among these returning pilgrims that many of them attempted to escape, some successfully. Such social facts show the weaknesses — or unwillingness — of Turkey’s political leadership.

The big unknown is what to do with the massive number of prison inmates. There are nearly 300,000 people locked up behind bars in Turkey. It is well known that after the 2016 attempted coup, Turkey’s prisons were filled beyond capacity. Human Rights Watch said approximately 50,000 of Turkey’s prison population are political prisoners, the main bulk of whom are Gulenists and Kurdish dissidents, as well as liberals, judges and journalists.

Voices are rising, referring to Iran’s move to release prisoners to curb the pandemic from penetrating prison compounds, with many calling for priority release to be given to Turkish prisoners held on political grounds.

The clock is ticking, but — perhaps no surprise for Turkey observers — Erdogan’s government seems hesitant, delaying the process. There are even signs that common criminals could be temporarily released instead.

COVID-19 may turn out to be a codename for testing Erdogan’s regime to the limit as the pandemic forces a tense and mistrustful society to distance itself even further from those who rule the country and their stunning hubris.

Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018.

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