In Turkey / Türkiye

By Sukru Kucuksahin, Al-Monitor, August 12, 2016

Turkish leaders keep stoking popular demands to reinstate the death penalty, but the repercussions of such a move go far beyond what the government can afford, observers say.

Tears from then-Turkish PM Erdogan in 2010 when speaking of youth who were executed in Turkey for opposing 1980 coup in Turkey (YouTube screenshot)

Tears from then-Turkish PM Erdogan in 2010 when speaking of youth who were executed in Turkey for opposing 1980 coup in Turkey (YouTube screenshot)

Around this time six years ago, Turkey was bracing for a referendum on controversial constitutional changes that would profoundly reshape the judiciary. To lure opposition voters, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had put a sweetener into the package — an article to prosecute the leaders of the 1980 coup, which had victimized mostly leftist, Kurdish and some rightist quarters.

In a memorable episode in parliament ahead of the vote, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke into tears as he eulogized young people executed after the coup, and he read the farewell letter one of them had penned. “The referendum,” he said, “will be a score-settling with the mentality that sent young people to the gallows.”

Today, having survived a coup attempt himself, Erdogan is an ardent advocate of reinstating the death penalty. Consistency is hardly Erdogan’s strong suit, yet this turnabout is not just another one, for it threatens a full-blown crisis with the European Union and serious rifts at home.

No one has been executed in Turkey since 1984, first under a de facto moratorium and then legal reforms aimed to advance the country’s EU accession bid. Capital punishment was fully removed from the books in 2004 under Erdogan’s government, following two amendments in 2001 and 2002 that had narrowed its scope to terrorism and crimes committed during war.

Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim say it is the Turkish people who want the death penalty back after the July 15 coup attempt. Yet, talk in Ankara’s political corridors suggests otherwise. On July 16, hours after the putsch was suppressed, a group of AKP supporters were already calling for the death penalty at the parliament’s courtyard. “We want executions,” they chanted, as Yildirim emerged from an emergency session to condemn the putsch. Al-Monitor, however, has learned that AKP lawmakers began discussing the restitution of capital punishment while the putschists bombed parliament during the night. Moreover, the demonstrators were able to enter the parliament’s premises as guests of the AKP, which reinforces claims that the whole thing was orchestrated.

Top EU officials, including foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, have issued stern warnings that reinstating the death penalty would end Turkey’s membership bid. Yildirim at one point cautioned against “rushing decisions in the heat of the moment,” though he asserted “the will of our citizens is an order for us.”

Erdogan, for his part, has urged parliament to take up the issue, pledging to readily approve any amendment to that effect. He reiterated his call even at the massive rally in Istanbul Aug. 7, which was meant as an unprecedented display of unity between the government and the opposition, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), a staunch opponent of the move.

Ertugrul Gunay, who served as Erdogan’s culture minister before resigning in disappointment in 2013, believes the president is using the threat of the death penalty to bully opponents and “bluff” the EU.

Gunay told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan is a pragmatist” with “no scruples about contradicting what he said yesterday. He knows very well that retroactive application of the death penalty [for the putschists] is legally impossible. So, why this turnabout? To spread fear in society, I believe. It is an intimidation intended for tomorrow, for the coming days.”

Gunay drew a link between the death penalty controversy and Erdogan’s efforts to overcome the crisis with Russia, which he described as a “great debacle” for Turkey. “The Russia move, along with the death penalty rhetoric, is a show for Europe — a message saying, ‘Look, I have the Russia option.’ [But] no European leader has correctly read the bluff.”

Turkey, Gunay argued, has too much to lose from severing ties with Europe or NATO, and closer bonds with Russia can never compensate for the loss. “A break is unlikely, so the bluff is aimed at the domestic public as well. Ties [with Europe] may become strained, but a break is something that neither Turkey’s economy nor military nor social fabric can afford,” he said.

Atilla Kart, a former lawmaker, warned of disastrous consequences if the death penalty was restored, stressing that a draconian crackdown was already underway against the Gulen community, which is held responsible for the putsch.

“Today’s practices pale in comparison to the 1980 coup,” Kart, who had served as a lawyer for victims of the 1980 coup, told Al-Monitor. “They don’t even feel the need to trump up some evidence … acting [merely] with feelings of enmity and vengeance. [People are prosecuted] on the basis of lists sent directly to the courts, without any investigation by police and prosecutors.”

Kart recalled the massive sham trials that targeted mainly soldiers but also journalists and intellectuals several years ago, which the government first backed and then disowned as a Gulenist “setup” to weaken the military. “Can you imagine what a huge catastrophe it would have been if the death penalty was applied at the time?” he asked.

Metin Feyzioglu, the head of the Turkish Bar Association, told Al-Monitor that major legal obstacles stood in the way of reinstating the death penalty. Any such move will require not only adding a new article to the constitution, but also the removal of an existing one that gives precedence to international law with respect to human rights, and therefore Turkey’s withdrawal from related protocols of the European Convention of Human Rights. He said, “Even if you go that far, you still can’t apply the death penalty retroactively. And if you insist you can, you override a fundamental, 2,000-year-old principle of law, which means a total break with Europe and the rest of the world.”

Feyzioglu, too, believes the controversy was aimed at domestic consumption, but warns it impedes the extradition of coup plotters who managed to escape abroad.

Besides the CHP, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party is also opposed to the death penalty, which means an outright amendment in parliament is arithmetically impossible. Yet, with support from the Nationalist Action Party, the AKP could take the amendment to a popular referendum.

The government has not spoken of a referendum so far, and Yildirim keeps pledging commitment to the spirit of unity displayed at the Istanbul rally, in which the CHP is a key element.

CHP Deputy Chairman Bulent Tezcan told Al-Monitor the party would not back down from its opposition to capital punishment. He slammed the AKP for stirring popular sentiments “instead of promoting common sense,” but doubted it would actually submit a proposal in parliament. “If they do, that would be a sign of a serious descent into authoritarianism [and] break with the West,” he said. “But I don’t really think this is what they are aiming at, and hopefully, it won’t happen.”

“Hopefully” is the most oft-used word in Turkey these days, reflecting perhaps less hope and more apprehension on what lies down the road.

Related reading:

Turkey-EU clash is now just a matter of time

By Kadri Gursel, Al-Monitor, August 15, 2016

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warnings that Turkey’s refugee deal with the European Union will collapse if the EU fails to waive visa restrictions for Turks have become more frequent, signaling a looming and serious crisis in Turkish-EU ties.

The emergency rule Erdogan declared after surviving the failed July 15 coup has meant the suspension of a series of basic rights and freedoms in Turkey, making the planned visa waiver even more difficult and hastening the course toward collision. The row was aggravated by a psychological factor as Erdogan feels anger and mistrust toward EU leaders who, according to him, failed to extend him adequate support after the putsch.

Since the beginning of August, Erdogan has grown markedly tougher on the issue, warning every five days on average that Turkey will stop readmitting refugees if the EU fails to introduce visa-free travel for Turks, with the Turkish press calling his warnings a “showdown.”

In his most recent challenge Aug. 12, Erdogan told Germany’s RTL television, “The visa liberalization and readmission are very important. The process is currently ongoing. Unfortunately, Europe has failed to keep its promise on the issue. We want to take steps simultaneously. If [the visa waiver] happens, fine. If not, I’m sorry but we’ll stop the readmissions.” He had made similar remarks on Aug. 2 and Aug. 8 as well.

Erdogan’s warnings are based on the March 18 deal between Turkey and the EU, under which Ankara pledged to take back all refugees who cross illegally from Turkey to Greece after March 20. Visa-free travel for Turkish nationals was part of the agreement — hence the reciprocity link Erdogan draws between the two. The introduction of the visa waiver was slated for June, but that target was missed, and all signs now indicate it is not forthcoming anytime this year.

Originally, the EU had planned to lift visa requirements for Turks in October 2016 if everything went smoothly under a visa liberalization agreement the two sides signed Dec. 16, 2013, more than two years before the refugee deal. The plan was brought forward to June and incorporated into the refugee deal as a result of personal efforts by Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The EU agreed because the new timing changed nothing about the 72 criteria Turkey was supposed to fulfill for the visa waiver, something that Ankara was perfectly aware of.

So far, Turkey has met 67 of the said criteria. Erdogan is reluctant to fulfill the remaining five, but wants the visa waiver to go ahead all the same — a demand that lies at the core of the dispute. The most important part of the homework Ankara refuses to do requires amendments in Turkey’s anti-terror law in line with EU norms. The EU’s objective here is pretty clear: to strip Turkish security and judicial authorities of a legal framework that allows for violations of basic rights and freedoms and thus make sure that visa-free travel does not encourage victimized Turks to seek political asylum in EU countries. So, the EU’s rationale is to protect itself against a possible new wave of migration, facilitated by visa-free travel while oppressive and restrictive laws remain in place.

Of note, two of the four other criteria at which Erdogan balks require legal amendments to align with EU norms on fighting corruption and the protection of personal data.

It’s worth recalling, however, that Erdogan’s threats to abolish the refugee deal did not begin after the July 15 putsch. The 2013 agreement, with all its 72 conditions, had been signed in Erdogan’s presence in Ankara, yet in May he was able to say, “They have put forward 72 points, saying we should do this and that. This story is something new. These [conditions] didn’t exist before. Where did they come from?”

In the days before the putsch, Erdogan’s pretext for rejecting the five outstanding criteria was the all-out war Ankara had launched on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in July 2015. He argued that amending anti-terror laws while the fight against the PKK was in full swing would play into the hands of the militants. Now, he has an even stronger reason to dig in his heels: to sustain unhindered the massive, merciless purges and clampdowns targeting the Gulen community — officially branded by Turkey the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization — whose military network has emerged as the planner and perpetrator of the putsch.

Under the state of emergency, Turkey has become a country run through legislative decrees exempt from constitutional checks, with freedoms further suppressed and the European Convention on Human Rights put on hold. Thus, it has drifted further away from the EU and can in no way be expected to fulfill the pending conditions for a visa waiver.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have landed in police custody or in jail, lost their jobs and seen their properties confiscated as the draconian onslaught on Gulenists rages both at state institutions and public life in general, threatening an exodus of political refugees to Europe.

In sum, the post-putsch conditions have reinforced the EU’s reasons to maintain the visa restrictions, while Erdogan has become tougher in demanding their removal. As long as these conditions prevail, the eruption of a severe crisis between Turkey and the EU is only a matter of time.

Kadri Gursel is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. His main focuses are Turkish foreign policy, international affairs, press freedom, Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam and its national and regional impacts. He wrote a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet between 2007 and July 2015. Gursel also worked for the Agence France-Presse for nearly five years, between 1993-1997 as an İstanbul based correspondent. While at the AFP, he was kidnapped by Kurdish militants in 1995. He recounted his misadventures at the hands of the PKK in his book titled “Dağdakiler” (Those of the Mountains) published in 1996. Twitter: @KadriGursel

Further related reading:
People’s Democratic Party (HDP) issues roadmap for democratization of Turkey, by HDP Press Office, Aug 10, 2016


EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search

Translate »