Turkey issued a decree Wednesday paving the way for the conditional release of some 38,000 prisoners, the justice minister said – an apparent move to reduce its prison population to make space for thousands of people who have been arrested as part of an investigation into last month's failed coup.
The government decree, issued under Turkey's three-month long state of emergency that was declared following the coup, allows the release of inmates who have two years or less to serve of their prison terms and makes convicts who have served half of their prison term eligible for parole. Some prisoners are excluded from the measures: people convicted of murder, domestic violence, sexual abuse or terrorism and other crimes against the state.
The measures would not apply for crimes committed after July 1, excluding any people later convicted of involvement in the failed July 15 coup.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on his Twitter account the measure would lead to the release of some 38,000 people. He insisted it was not a pardon or an amnesty but a conditional release of prisoners.
The government says the attempted coup, which led to at least 270 deaths, was carried out by followers of the movement led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who have infiltrated the military and other state institutions. Gulen has denied any prior knowledge or involvement in the coup but Turkey is demanding that the United States extradite him.
The Turkish government declared a state of emergency and launched a massive crackdown on Gulen's supporters in the aftermath of the coup. Some 35,000 people have been detained for questioning and more than 17,000 of them have been formally arrested to face trial, including soldiers, police, judges and journalists.
Tens of thousands more people with suspected links to Gulen have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs in the judiciary, media, education, health care, military and local government.
In separate decree, also issued Wednesday, the government dismissed 2,300 more officers from the police force, in addition to another 136 military officers and 196 employees from its information technology authority.
Wednesday's decrees also allow the air force to hire new pilots or take back pilots who had resigned or were discharged before the coup to replace pilots who have been arrested or dismissed for alleged participation in the coup or links to Gulen.
The government crackdown has raised concerns among European nations and human rights organizations, who have urged the Turkish government to show restraint.
Families began arriving at prison gates on Wednesday to greet loved ones who were set to be released. Among them was Hilmi Basaran who was waiting for his son, Birkan, outside of Silivri prison, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Istanbul.
Birkan was sentenced to 21 years in prison for involvement in prostitution.
"We are very happy right now. I can't find any words to say, because I am very excited," Basaran said.
Turkey's 180,000-person prisons were already filled to capacity before the crackdown on Gulen's movement, with some rights groups claiming that inmates were forced to take turns to sleep on beds. Turkey has issued several prison amnesties over the past decades to ease conditions in its prisons, but the measures proved unpopular with the public.
Bozdag insisted Wednesday that those being released would still be supervised.
"This measure is not an amnesty," Bozdag said on Twitter. "The punishment will be served outside through supervised released."
"I hope that the arrangement is beneficial to the prisoners, their loved ones, our people and our country," the minister wrote.