Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s new policing law

A new security bill is a further example of the draconian measures being taken by Turkey’s ruling AKP government, writes Cagri Ozdemir in Ankara

Al-Ahram Weekly

Parliamentary discussion of the controversial new domestic security bill in Turkey turned violent as the tension between MPs from opposition parties and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) culminated in a series of brawls last week.

In the wake of recent political tensions in the country, the government decided to revise existing laws for the prevention of crime and terror activities. The preamble of the new bill states that the government aims to deter violence at mass demonstrations, as well as protect public order.

The bill gives further rights to the police forces in detention procedures and the use of violence. However, since the drafting process the bill has been highly criticised by the opposition parties, as well as the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, Turkey’s largest professional organisation in the judiciary.

Postponed twice before the latest rounds of talks, tactical warfare between the opposition parties and the AKP government has now reached deadlock. During the closed session of parliament last Tuesday, five MPs were injured, receiving minor bruises. When the mainly Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) members attempted to block the legislation, AKP members allegedly attacked them with the aim of removing them from the chamber.

On the same day, two women MPs from the HDP ranks, Pervin Buldan and Sebahat Tuncel, attempted to occupy the podium in parliament and were pushed away by AKP MP Mustafa Elitas.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu criticised Buldan and Tuncel for “using their womanhood as a tool for provocation.” He continued, “In the wake of the psychological mood after the Ozgecan Tragedy, they are trying to give the impression that the AKP Party is attacking women.”

He was referring to the gruesome rape and murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan in the southern city of Mersin on 11 February, and nationwide reactions to the crime. HDP member Sirri Sureyya Onder was furious with the AKP MPs’ aggressive behaviour. Last Wednesday he warned government party MPs to stay away from the party’s members and “keep a distance of a sword’s length.”

The assembly could only start the voting session on Saturday evening. HDP members, along with other opposition parties, started a sit-in to block the legislation, and as of Tuesday morning only 16 out of 132 individual articles had been passed.

The bill introduces significant changes in police detention procedures and authorises the security forces to exercise tighter controls over mass demonstrations. Among the 132 articles, however, only a dozen of the most contentious proposals are the source of parliamentary quarrels.

Perhaps most importantly the bill allows provincial governors to carry out criminal investigations and take precautionary measures to prevent crimes. New overarching powers allow governors to mobilise public institutions to fight against crime, with the exception of employing military forces.

According to Cem Duran Uzun, a law professor at Cankaya University, among the changes introduced by the bill the expansion of the governors’ authority seems be the most dangerous.

“Criminal investigation should be a judicial matter. An administrative authority should not be vested with judicial powers,” he said. “Transferring judicial authority to an administrative body is a direct breach of the constitution and against the principle of checks and balances.”

Moreover, the bill permits the police to exercise extended detention rights of up to 48 hours on the basis of “reasonable doubt.” Currently, the security forces can only detain individuals with a written order from the state prosecutor.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) argues that this change gives the police the role of prosecutors, potentially leading them to take arbitrary measures, especially during mass demonstrations.

Following a similar amendment in December 2014, search procedures for suspects and their possessions changed from “concrete evidence” to “reasonable doubt.” The first application of the “reasonable doubt” clause was when the Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu television offices were raided in late 2014.

For Uzun, since the current bill grants the police the right to detain suspects without a written order from the prosecutor, the combination of both could result in widespread arbitrary practices.

It is not surprising that the AKP has justified the package by referring to the Kobane-related protests that took place across Turkey on 6-7 October. Thousands of Kurds went onto the streets in protest the government’s inaction over attacks by the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group on the Syrian border town of Kobane.

During the Kobane protests, more than 40 people lost their lives in several Turkish cities, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast. Additionally, in the face of rising threats from IS beyond its southern borders, Turkey has had to face new challenges in dealing with IS without jeopardising its internal security.

Among other minor fixes, the new bill gives the police the right to carry out body searches and enforce “travel restrictions.” As a result, the police will be able to undress and search individuals without written authorisation from the prosecutor. They will also be empowered to prevent people from entering certain areas and deport them from restricted zones.

Only the police chief’s verbal authorisation is required, on the condition that it is presented to a judge within 24 hours.

The CHP opposes this regulation, arguing that the lack of written authorisation is unconstitutional and therefore cannot be applied. Using the same line of thinking, the party’s overall stance is to block the contents of a bill that it says threatens democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also argues that with this bill the security forces will face no meaningful checks and this could further limit individual rights and freedoms. While the party opposes the bill on the grounds of the AKP’s alleged intention to transform provincial governors into representatives of the party, it also states that the current quarrel in parliament between the HDP and AKP is “nothing more than a sham.”

The government says that the new law will play an important role in the prevention of crime. The current law, amended in 2001 as part of an EU law-harmonisation package, does not allow the police to conduct searches without written consent by a prosecutor or judge.

According to Bulent Orakoglu at the daily Yeni Safak, the opposition’s reaction to the law has little to do with protecting the public interest, but rather is “an attempt to ferment chaos and street terror.”

“This law package should immediately be put in place in the wake of recent mass demonstrations, especially those that turned into propaganda for the terrorist organisation PKK and posed a security threat against civilians as well as public offices,” Orakoglu wrote.

Perhaps the most controversial regulation authorises the use of firearms against anyone using petrol bombs, explosives or slingshots. Interior Affairs Commissioner and AKP Party MP Idris Sahin argued that in the last six months petrol bomb attacks have surged, with more than 5,000 individual incidents recorded, claiming the lives of seven people, four of them police officers.

“We are authorising the police to eliminate petrol bomb attacks and reduce the destruction caused by mass demonstrations,” Sahin said. “The police forces will not act beyond their authority.”

According to HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, the regulation is not a precaution, but an invitation to extrajudicial killings.

“The current law prescribes up to 20 years imprisonment for the use of petrol bombs, and there are children in prison for such criminal offences,” he said last week. “The new law will authorise the police to shoot those using petrol bombs. This is called execution. The death penalty has long been abolished in Turkey.”

Though government circles have offered reassurances on the proper use of authority in Turkey, the police’s track record tells another story. During the mass demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in the summer of 2013, six people (including one police officer) died due to direct hits from pepper gas canisters or police brutality.

For Uzun, the new law is an invitation to the police to use firearms. “The new bill will only encourage the security forces to resort to deadly force, which could be seen as hugely controversy given Turkey’s conditions,” he said.

According to attorney-at-law Fikret Ilkiz, the lack of judicial orders will result in massive arbitrary measures, rendering virtually everybody a potential suspect. “Court orders prior to criminal searches will become obsolete, and if needed only retrospective consent will be sought from the courts,” he argued.

Most existing regulations have been amended during the AKP government’s term, especially as Turkey has been carrying out judicial reforms to harmonise its laws with EU regulations.

Police detention procedures were amended in 2005, and the authority of the security forces was decreased to avoid arbitrary practices. However, the government argues that preventive measures are commonplace practices in other EU countries and that the current law diminishes the efficiency of the security forces.

Uzun believes that the government’s actions are contradictory, as it was the same government in 2005 that saw problems in policing practices and felt the need to reform them.

Referring to the use of firearms against petrol bombs, Uzun concluded, “At present the police have the authority to resort to their weapons when needed. Old practices and abuses in the past, as we have seen in the Gezi Park and the Kobane protests, might result in even further abuses.”

Meanwhile, the parliament has convened to vote on the remaining articles. But with the current haste and opposition efforts to block the process, full passage of the package might take days if not weeks to complete.

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