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Where was the outrage when more babies were jailed in Turkey this year?

With the crackdown on the innocent in Turkey showing no signs of letting up, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has continued to imprison babies and their mothers, the tally of which was confirmed by the country’s top prison official as standing at 743 as of November 2018.

Perhaps Erdoğan, already singled out as the world’s worst press freedom predator, putting more journalists behind bars than the leader of any other country, is also competing for the title of the leading baby jailer when it comes to dragging mothers, including some who have just given birth, to notorious Turkish prisons and detention centres. Babies in overcrowded cells face malnutrition and problems of hygiene, are denied urgent medical care when needed, lack open spaces and may be traumatized to the extent that the baby’s future emotional wellbeing may be put at risk. 

According to Şaban Yılmaz, the director general of Prisons and Correctional Facilities, who testified at the parliamentary Commission on Human Rights on Nov. 11, 2018, Turkish prisons host 743 children under 6 years of age. Of these, 543 are less than 3 years old.

This amounts to a huge spike of 25.1 per cent in the number of jailed babies in Turkey since last year. This is simply not acceptable, and we all need to speak out on behalf of these babies who are being unfairly punished in Turkish prisons and deprived of their most basic human rights at an early age. We need to reach out to their mothers and give them hope and strength in order to shore up their resiliency and stamina against the difficult challenges of living in confined spaces.

In total, some 10,000 inmates are women in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, which house 260,000 people as of today. One-third of all jailed women are in pre-trial detention, meaning that they have not been indicted or convicted and that the proceedings against them are still on-going.

The latest official data on jailed babies were provided by the government on September 19, 2017, when Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül responded to a written question from an opposition lawmaker. According to the government response, there were 594 jailed babies under 6 years of age as of April 7, 2017.

It was also stated that 547 women were in jail accompanied by their babies, indicating that some of the mothers had been imprisoned with more than one child.

The problem with the figures is that the Turkish government in March 2017 stopped publishing prison bureau statistics, which used to be updated on a daily basis on the website of the Justice Ministry, which oversees prisons and correctional facilities. In order to suppress knowledge of overcrowded prisons and to cover up cases of systematic torture and abuse in detention centres and jails, the government has proved itself to be reluctant to share the official figures. More often than not, researchers are forced to glean and collect information belatedly and only after some pressure from opposition lawmakers. In some cases the government inadvertently reveals prison data when it publishes new releases.

Another setback to transparency was found when the prison bureau stopped publishing annual performance reports, which was in fact required by the Court of Account, an independent auditing agency that monitors government expenditures, in order to enhance the performance of government entities. The last report that was made public by the Directorate General of Prisons and Correctional Facilities is from two years ago. The 2016 Performance Report showed the number of jailed babies in the same age category as 529 and estimated that one-fifth of them were still breastfeeding.

It was also estimated by prison authorities in the report that 1,663 jailed women, both convicted and in pre-trial detention, were either pregnant or breastfeeding. These may be the crucial data that often get overlooked. Although the government did not share the figures from 2017, or 2018, for that matter, we can estimate that 2,000 women fall into this category today by using the same methodology the Justice Ministry utilized for the 2016 data. In other words, we have a worse outlook on jailed babies in Turkey than what officials are telling us publicly.

The number of 743 jailed babies given by Yılmaz, the director general of Prisons and Correctional Facilities, on Nov. 11, 2018 did not include the number for pregnant women, most in pre-trial detention, meaning that more babies will be born in prison cells.

Compounding the matter further are serious allegations of rape by police in detention centres and guards in prisons. Since prison authorities and police were given blanket immunity by an executive decree issued by Erdoğan during a now-ended state of emergency, allegations of rape as well as torture and ill treatment are rarely investigated by prosecutors. Doctors and hospitals have been under immense pressure not to record any allegations made by victims, and they are afraid of writing up reports that are not to the liking of the authorities. I guess the campaign of intimidation really works, and understandably, doctors in Turkey do not want to join a growing army of more that 21,000 health care professionals including doctors, nurses, professors of medicine, technicians and hospital staff whose lives have been destroyed by a massive purge over the last two years.

The figures surely tell one terrible story in Turkey, especially for babies and mothers, and highlight the fact that the Turkish government continues to violate not only its own laws but also international commitments and obligations made under treaties and conventions to which it is a party. For example, according to Article 16 of Turkish Law No. 5275 on the Execution of Penalties and Security Measures, people who have serious health problems, have recently given birth or are pregnant can be released pending trial and/or their prison time can be postponed. This provision is valid for both suspects in pre-trial detention and those who have been convicted. This law was effectively shelved in practice in Turkey, and many pregnant women were dragged to detention centres and prisons, and in some cases police unashamedly waited outside the maternity ward to detain new mothers immediately after delivery. Numerous such cases have been recorded in Turkey since 2016 despite a public outcry.

As a result, Turkey is also violating the 2006 Council of Europe (CoE) European Prison Rules and the 1957 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In June 2008 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged all member states including Turkey to consider suspending the imprisonment of pregnant women and said,

“When imprisoning a woman, particularly if she is the sole or main carer of children, the judicial authorities of member states should be convinced that this decision is more justifiable than a non-custodial sentence, given the disruption and emotional costs which may ensue to both the mother and children.”

Although a woman can choose to entrust her baby to the care of family members when she is jailed, many women have found it difficult to find a caregiver. Considering that the Erdoğan government has in recent years started jailing most family members by employing the Nazi practice of “guilt by association” or as part of the “collective punishment” of critics, especially members of the Gülen movement, many women simply cannot find anybody to take care of their babies. They are forced to raise these children in prison, where there are inadequate facilities and resources to meet the needs of infants.

The measures the government announced as having been taken to alleviate concerns about the well being of jailed babies sound ridiculous. For example, Justice Minister Gül said in September 2017 that the government provides a food allowance for babies in the amount of TL 10 ($1.85), which is an unbelievably small amount that is insufficient to even meet the nutritional needs of infants. There is no government support for clothing, diapers or other necessities, although the government claims it works with NGOs to address these issues.

The verdict is clear: The Erdoğan government has not only been jailing tens of thousands of innocent people ranging from journalists, academics, human rights defenders, teachers, doctors and lawyers to members of the judiciary but is also locking up the most innocent of all: babies. It shows the government in Turkey recognizes no boundaries in its relentless persecution of critics, opponents and dissidents. It certainly appears that there is no red line left that the government will not hesitate to cross merely to sustain the regime of fear in Turkey. It is incumbent upon us in the free world to continue speaking up against this massive tragedy, which is taking place before our very eyes in the 21st century, and exert more pressure on the Erdoğan government to cease and desist from such abhorrent practices as jailing babies and their mothers on dubious charges.

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