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Turkey May Toughen Virus Measures, Groups Urge Release of Political Detainees

Turkey May Toughen Virus Measures, Groups Urge Release of Political Detainees

Wednesday, 1 April, 2020 - 17:15
Employees disinfect streets and shops inside Istanbul's famous Grand Bazaar to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (EPA)

Turkey will step up containment measures if the coronavirus outbreak grows and people ignore a "voluntary" quarantine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, as the country's top doctor warned of strains on hospitals and pushed for action.

The Turkish Medical Association (TTB), which has criticized what it says is a lack of government readiness and transparency as cases surged over the last three weeks, has been among those pressing Ankara to adopt and enforce a stay-at-home order.

Turkey has reported 13,500 cases so far, the 10th highest number worldwide, and 214 deaths. The government has urged people to stay at home, halted flights, limited domestic travel, shut schools, bars and cafes and suspended mass prayers and sports fixtures.

But it has stopped short of announcing a full lockdown in an effort to cushion the economic disruption.

"We are determined to continue production and exports," Erdogan told a meeting of provincial leaders of his ruling AK Party in a televised video conference.

"We won't need further measures if all our citizens keep themselves in a voluntary quarantine. However, we may have to take much more advanced measures if the pandemic spreads and our citizens don't stay at home," he said.

In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city where infections are the highest, the mayor has pushed for a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus because millions of people are still going to work each day.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

There are more than 2,000 coronavirus patients in hospitals in Istanbul including more than 200 in intensive care, with more than 100 medical staff infected so far, the TTB said, citing its own provincial data through March 30.

Hospitals in the city of 16 million people lack enough masks, gloves, goggles and other equipment and could face a severe lack of beds if the outbreak spreads, it said.

"This is surely the tip of the iceberg," TTB Chairman Sinan Adiyaman said in an interview.

"Every person in the public and private sector must stay at home unless it is essential they go out," he told Reuters, adding that this would mean granting them "certain social rights (including) paid leave".

"Layoffs must absolutely be banned. Every worker's social rights must be protected this way to ensure they stay at home apart from mandatory cases," he said.

The government has announced a 100-billion lira ($15 billion) package to support the economy that includes some wage protection for workers, though many, including in the vast tourism sector, are not covered.

The TTB's office in Izmir, Turkey's third largest city, complained of "great secrecy" surrounding the 700 or so coronavirus patients there. It said doctors were struggling to access patient data and that not enough was being done to keep diagnosed and suspected cases separated. ($1 = 6.6909 liras)

Political prisoners

Separately, Turkish academics, journalists and rights groups are demanding that a planned release of tens of thousands of prisoners to stem the spread of the coronavirus should not exclude inmates whose only crime, they say, has been to challenge the authorities.

The AK Party proposed a bill on Tuesday that would temporarily free around 45,000 prisoners. A similar number would be released permanently under a separate part of the legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

The proposed bill does not cover those convicted of terrorism charges - potentially excluding many thousands of people caught up in a purge which followed a failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016.

“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.

“When lives are at stake, there can be no discrimination based on beliefs or ideologies,” they said in a statement signed by 281 people, including writers.

Many prisoners were “on the threshold of coronavirus catastrophe” due to cramped conditions, they said.

Turkey has arrested thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists, civil servants and members of the military it says were supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who it blames for the coup attempt. Gulen denies any involvement.

Many Kurdish activists and politicians the state says have links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are also in jail.

There are about 300,000 prisoners in Turkey’s crowded jails. The government has been working on reforms to ease pressure on the system, and expanded its proposals in light of the growing coronavirus outbreak which has infected more than 13,000 people.

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, parliamentarian from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said some 50,000 people were convicted or in jail pending trial on terrorism charges, including members of the PKK and Gulen’s network, as well as journalists and others jailed on what he said were “thought crimes”.

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

Gergerlioglu said a former mayor from the party, who was jailed last year, was released from prison and placed on house arrest on Tuesday after being diagnosed with coronavirus.

“The coronavirus outbreak has started spreading in prisons. There are still no serious measures. If mass deaths begin in prisons, it will be too late, even if the law passes,” he said.

The Justice Ministry has said no cases have been determined in prisons and that necessary measures are being taken. Last week, prosecutors launched an investigation into Gergerlioglu after he said a prisoner had been diagnosed with the virus.

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