Turkey releases mob boss, keeps government critics in prison

Scores of journalists, activists, politicians and members of opposition parties remain in jail as Turkey releases thousands over coronavirus fears, including a far-right mob boss.

ISTANBUL — An organized crime boss serving a prison sentence in Turkey was set free as Turkish authorities continued releasing thousands of inmates to ease overcrowding during the coronavirus pandemic, under a new law that has been criticised for keeping government critics behind bars.

The updated law changes the conditions for prisoners to be released on probation and reduces the minimum time that must be served for some convictions.

Far-right mob boss Alaattin Cakici was released from an Ankara prison and planned to “sequester” at a friend’s hotel in western Turkey, defense lawyer Zeynep Ciftci tweeted. The private DHA and IHA news agencies filmed Cakici’s convoy leaving the prison.

The 67-year-old was imprisoned for convictions on charges that included instigating murder, armed attack, money laundering, leading an illegal organization and insulting the president. Cakici had served 16 years of his decades-long sentences before his release.

The political circumstances of Cakici's release have raised concerns, as the mobster is close to a nationalist politician who is allied with the Turkish government. The politician, Devlet Bahceli, had demanded amnesty for him. Cakici’s involvement in organized crime and the far-right in Turkey are well-documented. He was active in violence against leftist groups before a military coup in 1980, and continues to have devoted followers.

In 2018, following parliamentary elections that saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party maintain a majority with the aid of Bahceli's far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Cakici lambasted the president for not mentioning the far-right in his victory speech.

“You are not the owner of this state... don't forget that you are just a passenger, and Turkish nationalists are the hosts,” Cakici wrote on Facebook. Many people in Turkey saw Cakici's statement as a sign of the sway that ultra-nationalists hold over the Turkish government; Cakici's comment came at a time that the state was opening thousands of legal cases against individuals for “insulting the presidency”.

At the same time as criminals like Cakici are being released, scores of journalists, activists, politicians and members of opposition parties are ineligible for early release under penal legislation that took effect this week, which has been criticised by rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. 

This includes people jailed while awaiting a date for their trial to begin, those waiting for a formal indictment or suspects currently being tried.

The law does not apply to people charged with or convicted of sex and drug crimes, murder in the first degree, or violating Turkey’s intelligence law. But it also excludes inmates held on terror charges, a crime of which numerous government critics stand accused under circumstances that rights groups and activists have decried as dubious.

'A great disappointment'

Upon the law's proposal at the end of March, Turkish academics, journalists and rights groups demanded that the release should not exclude inmates whose only crime, they say, has been to challenge the authorities.

“The state wants to release the ones who committed a crime against citizens while keeping the ones who questioned its authoritarianism behind bars,” the campaigners said in a signed statement. “When lives are at stake, there can be no discrimination based on beliefs or ideologies.”

Among the high-profile figures jailed in Turkey under terror-related charges are businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.

Kavala is accused of links to a Muslim cleric that the government says organised a coup attempt in 2016, as well as helping to organise mass anti-government protests in 2013. Demirtas, the ex-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), is accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group outlawed in Turkey.

Following the failed coup attempt in 2016, tens of thousands of people were similarly arrested for alleged terror links to the network of the US-based Fethullah Gulen and the Kurdish insurgency. Opposition parties and rights groups have slammed the legislation, charging Turkey’s broad terror laws are being abused in order to crack down on freedom of expression and silence the political opposition.

At least 85 journalists are behind bars, according to the Journalists’ Union of Turkey. The HDP says more than 3,500 party members, including former party leaders and lawmakers, are imprisoned.

Erdogan’s government has defended the crackdown, saying it reflected the scale of the security challenges Turkey faced.

Before signing the latest measure into law, Erdogan said the legal changes were designed for the need to update the criminal justice system and also addressed the threat posed by the coronavirus to prisoners in Turkey.

“Every precaution, from hygiene to quarantines, are being taken to prevent these people from catching this pandemic,” he said.

But the main secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said it would apply to the Constitutional Court to get the law repealed. The party's deputy chairman, Engin Ozkoc, said the law unjustly frees prisoners “who hurt the public conscience” while keeping “the ones holding pens" behind bars.

Two European Union lawmakers called the law “a great disappointment.”

“Turkish ruling parties have decided to deliberately expose the lives of journalists, human rights defenders and those whom they deem to be political opponents to the risk of the deadly disease COVID-19,” the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sanchez Amor, and the chair of a parliamentary delegation to an EU-Turkey joint committee, Sergey Lagodinsky, said.

Turkey has reported 69,392 virus cases and 1,518 deaths, according to the latest Health Ministry figures. The justice minister said earlier this week that 17 inmates in minimum-security prisons had tested positive for the new coronavirus and three had died.