Turkey is releasing thousands of convicts from prison, to make room for coup suspects

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 12:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 9:09pm

Turkey began freeing 38,000 prisoners on Wednesday, after announcing a penal reform that will make space for tens of thousands of suspects rounded up over last month’s attempted coup.

The reform was one of a series of measures outlined on Wednesday in two decrees under a state of emergency declared after the July 15 failed putsch during which 240 people were killed.

The government gave no reason for measure, but its prisons were already straining capacity before the mass arrests that followed the coup.

Western allies worry President Tayyip Erdogan, already accused by opponents of creeping authoritarianism, is using the crackdown to target dissent, testing relations with a key NATO partner in the war on Islamic State.

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Angrily dismissing those concerns, Turkish officials say they are rooting out a serious internal threat from followers of a U.S.-based cleric.

Wednesday’s decrees, published in the Official Gazette, also ordered the dismissal of 2,360 more police officers, more than 100 military personnel and 196 staff at Turkey’s information and communication technology authority, BTK.

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Those dismissed were described as having links to cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan turned enemy. Erdogan says Gulen was behind the attempt by rogue troops using tanks and jets to overthrow the government. Gulen denies involvement.

Under the penal reform, convicts with up to two years left in sentences are eligible for release on probation, extending the period from one year. The “supervised release” excludes those convicted of terrorism, murder, violent or sexual crimes.

“I’m really happy to be released from jail. I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” prisoner Turgay Aydin was quoted by Andolu news agency telling reporters outside Turkey’s largest prison Silivri, west of Istanbul. “I thank President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I’ve come to my senses. After this I will try to be a better, cleaner person.”

In an interview with A Haber television, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said 38,000 people would initially be released, but as many as 93,000 could benefit from the programme.

To be eligible for the scheme, prisoners must have served half of their sentences. Previously they were required to have already served two thirds of their sentences.

According to justice ministry data obtained by Anadolu agency, there were 213,499 prisoners in jail as of August 16, more than 26,000 above prison capacity.

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Another measure in the decrees gave the president more choice in appointing the head of the armed forces. He can now select any general as military chief. Previously only the heads of the army, navy or air force could be promoted to the post.

A telecoms authority will also be closed under the moves.

Erdogan says Gulen and his followers infiltrated government institutions to create a ‘parallel state’ in an attempt to take over the country.

A total of 40,029 people have been detained in investigations following the coup, and 20,355 of them formally arrested, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a speech late on Wednesday.

He said 79,900 people had been removed from public duty, referring to purges in the civil service that have targeted the military, police, teachers and judiciary. A total of 4,262 companies and institutions with links to Gulen have been shut, he said.

Turkey declared a three-month state of emergency on July 21, and decrees since then have dismissed thousands of security force members and shut thousands of private schools, charities and other institutions suspected of links to Gulen.