By Jonny Hogg
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish rights activists reacted angrily to a government measure that has led to the segregation of lesbian, gay and transsexual prisoners to protect them from harassment and attacks while in jail.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag announced the "protecting convicts" measure for openly homosexual prisoners in a written response to a parliamentary question from an opposition lawmaker.
Turkey's political landscape has in recent months become increasingly polarized between the opposition and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party government, seen as pushing a more conservative agenda on a range of issues.
"Projects are under way for the construction of separate penitentiaries to house inmates with divergent sexual orientations," Bozdag also said in the response, published on parliament's website.
The statement was dated April 3, but the issue only sparked widespread debate in Turkey this week after the lawmaker who tabled the question expressed concerns over the policy.
Some took to social media to criticize it, although a survey of 10,000 people carried out by mainstream daily Hurriyet found that 52 percent of respondents backed the proposal.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey although it remains taboo. Recent legislation aimed at tackling so-called "hate crimes" offered no specific protection to people facing discrimination based on their sexuality, according to Kaos GL, a rights group focused on sexual orientation and gender issues.
Kaos GL spokesman Murat Koylu said many gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT) prisoners are already placed in solitary confinement by prison staff who are either unsure how to deal with or openly hostile to homosexuality.
The new measure was "the worst type of message for a state that is supposed to be acting in a pluralist way to give," Koylu told Reuters.
"If the government behaves like this, it's great evidence for those who are in favor of homophobia, they would use it as proof (of their views)."
Homophobia remains widespread in Turkey, with almost 9 out of 10 people saying they would not like having homosexual neighbors, according to the 2013 World Values Survey.
Prison segregation on the basis of sexuality is not common internationally, although in 2010 Italy opened a jail specifically to hold transgender inmates.
(Additional reporting by Ozge Ozbilgin and Ayse Sarioglu; Editing by John Stonestreet)