Clamping down on dissidents will not stem the tide of coronavirus deaths

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The Covid-19 pandemic, currently sweeping across the globe and claiming thousands of lives every day, has laid bare the remarkable ineptitude of authoritarian leaders worldwide in resolving the humanitarian crisis that it has engendered. Demagogues today spend more time in flouting social distancing regulations and in clamping down on their critics than in stemming the spread of the virus. At the same time, they refuse to show leniency to their staunched critics—many of whom are already languishing in prison. On the contrary, from Bangladesh to Venezuela, now that dissenting voices have swelled, more and more people are finding themselves behind bars. In Turkey, despite repeated calls from many human rights organisations, the government, so far, consistently declined to consider its political prisoners, including journalists and opposition leaders, for early release. In recent days, the Turkish police have arrested at least seven reporters accusing them of spreading panic, and hundreds of people are under investigation for criticising the government on social media. The death of Helin Bolek, a member of the Turkish folk music group who along with one of her colleagues started a hunger strike in an attempt to pressurise the government to lift the ban it imposed on the band from performing and to release their imprisoned colleagues, is tragic and heartbreaking. In this case, the Turkish government is clearly culpable in the death of Bolek since it refused to even consider the demands until the hunger strike was called off. Bolek’s death should not go in vain. Shuddhashar urges the Turkish government to immediately lift its ban on the band and release Bolek’s colleagues from imprisonment.

The Turkish government has the primary responsibility to safeguard the lives of its citizens from a deadly pandemic—even of those, it considers as political opponents. There is strong evidence of the pandemic spreading in Turkey’s overcrowded prison system. Thousands of imprisoned academics, lawyers, journalists, civil servants, and military personnel whom the Turkish government has charged with treason, risk falling victim to the virus unless the government shows clemency in these desperate times. Moreover, it should remain aware that any expedient attempts at using the pandemic as an excuse to further curtail the freedom of expression of the Turkish people would not only hurt its already worsening reputation on the global stage but in fact derail its efforts to limit the damages incurred by the deadly virus. Pandemics thrive when the dissemination of knowledge is suppressed. Shuddhashar urges the Turkish government to immediately release its vulnerable prison population, irrespective of whether they are common criminals or political prisoners, and put a stopper on the ongoing draconian crackdown on its critics. At the same time, Shuddhashar extends our solidarity to those in Turkey who are fighting for securing their legitimate human rights and dignity.

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