PM touts capital punishment, rejecting Öcalan house arrest

5 November 2012 / AYDIN ALBAYRAK, ANKARA – Zaman – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has raised the possibility of bringing back capital punishment, which many see as a tactic to deflect demands for the release of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Erdoğan commented last week that the Turkish public is in favor of the reinstatement of capital punishment, in remarks intended to respond to the demand brought forward by PKK militants currently on a hunger strike in prison, as well as by BDP deputies, that Öcalan be released to house arrest from İmrali Island, where he is presently incarcerated. Analysts take Erdoğan’s words not as an indication that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is sincerely considering reinstating capital punishment but rather as a message to those making such demands that there is strong public support for such a policy, while demonstrating at the same time that Turkey will not tolerate a hunger strike being used as a political tool.

According to Vedat Bilgin, a lecturer at Gazi University, the message the prime minister is sending through his discourse is that “trying to open the way for murderers to get into politics, you need to take into account the sensitivities of the Turkish people.”

“Erdoğan reminded us that terror crimes [were] capital offenses,” Bilgin told Today’s Zaman. Describing the use of a hunger strike to achieve political goals as “political blackmail,” “Erdoğan made it clear the government wouldn’t step back in the face of hunger strikes being used to reap political results,” remarked Bilgin, who is personally opposed to the reinstatement of capital punishment.   Drawing attention to the fact that Öcalan, responsible as the leader of the terrorist organization for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, originally received a death sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment, Erdoğan commented at the AK Party’s 19th Consultation and Assessment Meeting in Kızılcahamam on Saturday, “What’s interesting is that public surveys show most people in Turkey want the death penalty to be reinstated.” “Because it’s the relatives of those who are killed in terrorist attacks who really suffer, and not those who continue eating kebabs,” the prime minister went on to say, referring to the deputies of the BDP who have given the impression of urging people in prison to join the hunger strike without participating themselves.

Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a BDP deputy, has criticized Erdoğan’s attitude, telling Today’s Zaman: “What’s worthy of praise is to keep people alive. … Capital punishment should absolutely not be on the country’s agenda.”

Turkey, a member of the Council of Europe since 1952 and a negotiating candidate for EU membership since 2005, abandoned the death penalty in practice in 1984. In 2002, Turkey abolished the death penalty in peacetime as part of a package of reforms aimed at preparing the country for European Union membership, and in all circumstances, including times of war, in 2004. The death penalty was replaced by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There is considerable support among the Turkish public for the death penalty for terrorists and people who engage in violent killings. Numan Kurtulmuş, former leader of the now defunct Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), serving now as a deputy chairman of the AK Party, also defended the reinstatement of the death penalty following a massacre-like killing spree in Mardin in 2009, when he was the leader of the Felicity Party. “Turkey should definitely consider reinstating capital punishment, particularly for serial killers,” Kurtulmuş said at the time, noting that people condemned to life imprisonment often find a way of securing their release from prison after 10 or 15 years thanks to amnesties declared by governments.

Following the brutal killings of three children in Kayseri and one in İstanbul two years ago, the Grand Unity Party (BBP) launched a signature campaign demanding the return of the death penalty for barbaric murderers, as well as the jailed leader of the outlawed PKK, arguing that such a punishment would bring people a sense of justice. “We are a party that believes the death penalty is necessary,” stated Yalçın Topçu, then leader of the BBP.

But with Turkey having put its signature to international treaties banning capital punishment, it is not probable that the AK Party government will take a step in this direction. “I don’t think the government intends to reinstate the death penalty,” said Veysel Ayhan from Abant İzzet Baysal University, who believes Erdoğan’s words are simply aimed at drawing the attention of those who demand Öcalan be placed under house arrest to the public’s support for capital punishment. Erdoğan’s words carry the implication that people convicted of terror crimes actually receive more than they deserve, being kept in prison instead of being put to death. “The head of the terrorists, who now serves time on İmralı, was given the death penalty in court, but this country, under the pressure of some [organizations], unfortunately abolished the death penalty,” Erdoğan said in his speech, also adding that the state should have the right to pardon those who commit a crime against itself, but not those who commit crimes against individuals.

But Ayhan, who opposes capital punishment, doesn’t believe the public is necessarily opposed to steps which would help to bring about the resolution of the Kurdish problem. “Because otherwise when the Oslo negotiations — negotiations in which the prime minister’s then-deputy secretary along with some members of the National Intelligence Organization [MİT] conducted talks with representatives of the PKK in Oslo two years ago — were revealed there would have been strong public protests, but there was no big reaction,” he told Today’s Zaman. Akın Özçer, a former diplomat and a columnist for the Taraf daily, described Erdoğan’s words as an “unfortunate comment” indicating a reversal in Turkey’s EU efforts.