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Is Turkey freeing 38,000 prisoners to make room for coup plotters?

Turkey has announced plans to release of thousands of prisoners in a move that analysts believe is aimed at freeing up prison space for the thousands of people arrested for taking part in July's failed military coup.

Turkey's Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ announced a series of penal reforms on Twitter on Wednesday that he said could see 38,000 prisoners released from the country's overcrowded jails.

Prisoners with two years left on their sentences could be eligible for release, Bozdag said, although prisoners still need to have served at least half their sentences to be eligible.


Detained Turkish soldiers who allegedly took part in a military coup arrive in a bus at the courthouse in Istanbul on July 20, 2016, following the military coup attempt of July 15.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Detained Turkish soldiers who allegedly took part in a military coup arrive in a bus at the courthouse in Istanbul on July 20, 2016, following the military coup attempt of July 15.

Prisoners convicted of murder, violent crimes and sexual abuse are excluded from the reforms - as will those serving crimes committed after July 1 2016, he said, insisting that the penal reforms were not an "amnesty."

One U.K.-based political expert who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation following the failed coup told CNBC that the penal reforms certainly "look like it's intended to make room for alleged members of the coup plot."

"The release of prisoners is likely to have been carried out to make space for new detainees, the majority of which were in all likelihood not directly or indirectly involved in the failed putsch," he said.

Since the failed attempt to depose Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, more than 60,000 people in the police, judiciary, academia, media and local government have either been arrested for taking part in the overthrow attempt on July 15 in which 270 people died or suspended or dismissed from their posts.

The post-coup crackdown has prompted condemnation from global leaders who have warned Erdogan not to use the coup attempt as an excuse to stamp on political opposition.

Read MoreTurkey's 'witch hunt' of Erdogan rivals 'only just starting'

Caution reigns amid crackdown

The sweeping arrests have even prompted country analysts who work in Turkey to be cautious, with several declining to give any comment to CNBC due to what one described as the very tense nature of the situation in the country.

The mass arrests in a post-coup crackdown have put pressure on the country's prisons and have led to reports of overcrowding although this was not mentioned as a reason for the relaxation of release conditions.

As of March – the latest available data and before the mass detentions following the coup – there were almost 188,000 people in Turkey's 355 prisons, according to the U.K.-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research, above the official prison capacity of around 180,000.

Ministry of Justice statistics show that the number of prisoners has risen during Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development (AK) party's time in power; In 2002, when the AK party and Erdogan won their first election, the prison population was 59,429.

Erdogan believes the plot was carried out by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a popular Turkish cleric and former ally who now lives in the U.S. Gulen has denied any prior knowledge of the plot or involvement and has said that Erdogan has used the coup as an excuse for a crackdown on the opposition. The U.S. has so far refused Turkey's requests to extradite Gulen.

The U.K. expert who asked not to be named told CNBC that he now expected the crackdown "to continue in the next couple of weeks if not months" and feared that proper judicial processes might not be followed.

"These people are being treated as guilty before being proven innocent and the fact is that we have thousands of individuals being targeted that may or may not have a connection to the Gulen movement . The government is using this as an excuse to flush out dissent across the board."

William Jackson, senior Emerging Markets Economist at Capital Economics, told CNBC the announcement was likely to have a negative impact on Turkey's economy, with the continuing political crackdown deterring investors.

"I suspect it may reinforce concerns among investors that the backlash against supporters of the coup will continue, or perhaps become more aggressive. I think the concern here is that may be interpreted as a sign of more arbitrary policymaking and a shift towards a greater centralization of power (particularly in the presidency). Ultimately, that may weigh on investment and the economy's growth prospects."

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