Islam and Friday prayers in Turkish prisons: Abdullah Yalçın

In Abdullah Yalçın (No. 2) v Turkey [2022] ECHR 473, the applicant was a convicted prisoner in a high-security prison. The prison authorities had refused to provide prisoners with a room in which they could hold Friday prayer.

The Government argued that because Mr Yalçın had shared a cell with up to four other inmates during the relevant period he could have performed congregational Friday prayers with them. Section 70 of Law no. 5275 gave prisoners the right to religious worship, together with the right to obtain necessary items and to possess books and other written materials required for their religious life. The authorities’ interference with his Article 9 rights had had a legal basis and they had complied with their positive obligations under that provision [20]. Complying with his request to offer Friday prayers collectively with other detainees held in different cells – by allowing all the detainees to gather together – would have been a risk both to the institution’s security and to the prisoners’ safety [21]. Further, the Government contended:

“according to the views of religious bodies and scholars, the congregational Friday prayers took the form in Islam of a mandatory religious practice only in the case, inter alia, of the person being free”.

Mr Yalçın was therefore under no religious obligation to offer Friday prayers because he had been deprived of his liberty [22].

Mr Yalçın pointed out that prisoners were able to gather once a week for sporting activity in a place designated by the prison authorities; therefore, he argued, it should be possible for them to allocate a room where forty to fifty people could offer congregational Friday prayers. It was part of humane treatment; and the authorities’ refusal had caused him great mental suffering [18]. Further, the Government’s view that Friday prayers were not obligatory for prisoners put him in the position of “a slave”, because such a view was only applicable in war conditions prevailing a thousand years ago, and was not compatible with the principles of a social State governed by the rule of law. Accordingly, he invited the Court to find a violation of Article 9 [19].

The judgment

It was common ground that Mr Yalçın was able to worship in his cell and obtain and possess books or other written material relating to his religious beliefs. But as to the Government’s argument that he and his cell-mates could have practised congregational Friday prayers in their own cell, it was not possible to ascertain whether the others were also willing to offer congregational Friday prayers [29].

The Court accepted that high-security prisons were subject to a stricter set of rules that might call for a higher degree of restrictions on the exercise of Article 9 rights, but

“that fact alone should not be construed as excluding any real weighing of the competing individual and public interests but should rather be interpreted in the light of the circumstances of each individual case.”

The domestic authorities did not appear to have carried out an individualised risk assessment in respect of the applicant [32]. Nor had they carried out a proper assessment of whether a gathering of a certain number of inmates for Friday prayers might generate such a security risk that they should have been treated differently from the collective gatherings of inmates for cultural or rehabilitative purposes [33]. Nor was the Court convinced by the Government’s argument that Mr Yalçın’s request could only have been realised by opening the doors of all the cells and, in any event, his argument for “forty to fifty people” to gather for Friday prayers had only been raised before the Court and had not formed part of his request to the domestic authorities [34].

The Government had failed to demonstrate that the domestic authorities had sufficiently weighed the competing interests at stake in a manner that complied with their positive obligations [35]. There had accordingly been a violation of Article 9 [36].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Islam and Friday prayers in Turkish prisons: Abdullah Yalçın" in Law & Religion UK, 23 June 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/06/23/islam-and-friday-prayers-in-turkish-prisons-abdullah-yalcin/

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