ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey began releasing inmates on Wednesday in 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 discharges started just hours after the government issued a decree for the conditional release of some 38,000 prisoners under Turkey's three-month long state of emergency that was declared following the coup.
The decree 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. People convicted of murder, domestic violence, sexual abuse, terrorism and other crimes against the state are excluded from the measures.
Also, they 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 a 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 a 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.
Soon after the decree was announced, families began arriving at prison gates to wait for loved ones who were set to be released.
Among those released from Silivri prison, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Istanbul, was Emrah Pasa Alissoy, 27, who was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud and was set free four days earlier than scheduled.
"We are very happy. We get back to our family. It was our families who were punished," Alissoy 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.
"I hope that the arrangement is beneficial to the prisoners, their loved ones, our people and our country," the minister wrote on Twitter.
Bram Janssen in Istanbul contributed to this report.