PM’s call for death penalty sparks controversy among politicians / EU to Turkey: Death penalty unacceptable

13 November 2012 / BETÜL A. DEMIRBAŞ / ALI A. KILIÇ, ANKARA – Remarks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey might discuss bringing back the death penalty in cases of acts of terror and murder have sparked a heated debate among the country’s politicians and human rights associations.

While some are strongly opposed to reinstating the death penalty, arguing that such a move would damage Turkey’s efforts to date for democratization and its bid to join the European Union, some others praised the prime minister’s proposal because, they said, the death penalty would help reduce the crime rate in the country.“This may not be the case for political crimes, but it may be possible, for sure, to discuss [bringing back] the death penalty in connection with crimes of terror and causing the death of people,” Erdoğan said on Saturday when speaking to journalists.

Turkey 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 EU membership, and foreswore the practice for all circumstances, including times of war, in 2004. The death penalty was replaced by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.It was not immediately clear if the prime minister is planning to have his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) prepare a draft law to bring back capital punishment. Grand Unity Party (BBP) Chairman Mustafa Destici said on Monday that his party is going to submit a law proposal to the three main political parties — the AK Party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — to urge them to take required steps to re-introduce the death penalty. The BBP supports the idea of bringing back the death penalty for rapists and terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The AK Party, which holds the majority in Parliament, seems unclear for the moment about plans to bring back capital punishment. In what contradicted the prime minister’s remarks, AK Party deputy Burhan Kuzu said his party cannot bring back the punishment because Turkey’s aspiration to become a full member of the EU would not allow such a move. “It is not possible to do it [bring back the death penalty] unless we quit the bid for EU membership,” he stated.

AK Party deputy İdris Bal, on the other hand, voiced support for the reinstatement of capital punishment and called on critics to put themselves in the place of people who lost their beloved one at the hands of terrorists, murderers or rapists and then re-consider their criticism of the penalty. “There are thousands of examples before us. There are people who rape others and then kill the victims and witnesses, if any, in order not to leave any trace behind. It is not human rights not to sentence them to capital punishment. It is cruelty to the families of the victims,” he said, adding that the death sentence row will not turn into a bill or a law unless Turkey gives up its bid for EU membership.

Volkan Bozkır, another deputy of the ruling party, said Parliament is set to decide what to do with the death penalty after the issue is debated in society.

The main opposition CHP voiced criticism of plans to reinstate the capital punishment. The party’s deputy chairman, Gürsel Tekin, said the CHP is against the death penalty and added that he does not believe the reinstatement of the penalty will help reduce the crime rate. “Has Iran or Russia been able to reduce the crime rate thanks to capital punishment?” he asked, adding that it is nonsense for a country that is working to join the EU to discuss bringing back the death penalty.It is not the first time the prime minister raised the possibility of bringing back capital punishment. He spoke about the issue last week, saying the Turkish public is in favor of the reinstatement of capital punishment. His remarks were intended to respond to the demand brought forward by PKK terrorists and supporters, who are currently on a hunger strike in prison, that the jailed leader of the terrorist group, Abdullah Öcalan, be released to house arrest from İmralı Island, where he is presently incarcerated.

According to the MHP, which often voices expectation for the reintroduction of the death penalty, the party does not see Erdoğan’s remarks as sincere because it believes the remarks were fabricated as part of the AK Party’s populist rhetoric. MHP Parliamentary Group Deputy Chairman Oktay Vural said his party strongly opposed the AK Party when it abolished the death penalty for all circumstances in 2004. “The prime minister is using the death penalty issue in order not to lose the support of his voters whom he recently disappointed through the steps he took in politics,” he said, adding that the MHP would support it if the ruling party brings a draft law to Parliament to reintroduce the death penalty for rapists, terrorists and murderers.

An attempt to fight hunger strike?

Some observers believe the prime minister has brought the death penalty to public attention as a “tactic to fight the hunger strike of prisoners,” which is now in over 60th day.

Hundreds of prisoners incarcerated in the country’s prisons for various crimes, including membership of the terrorist PKK and its Iranian offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), are currently on a hunger strike. As well as improvements in the prison conditions of jailed PKK leader Öcalan, the strikers are demanding the right to receive education and address courts of law in their mother tongue, Kurdish. KONDA polling company General Manager Bekir Ağırdır said the prime minister heated up the debate over capital punishment after the hunger strike began dominating the national agenda. “The prime minister is using the death penalty as a tactic to fight hunger strikers,” he stated.

Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş agreed, and complained that Erdoğan is adding fuel to the fire by talking about capital punishment instead of working to bring an end to the hunger strike. Demirtaş also said Öcalan cannot be sentenced to the death penalty even if Parliament adopts a law to bring back capital punishment because new laws are not applied to past incidents.

Today’s Zaman also asked the opinion of human rights associations about the possibility of the reinstatement of capital punishment. According to Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, head of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), the prime minister is using the death penalty as a “means of threat” to dissuade supporters of a solution for the Kurdish question. “The discussion over the death penalty has been brought to the agenda within the context of the Kurdish question. The prime minister is hitting the ball out of bounds. The AK Party is not doing what is required to solve the [Kurdish] question. Instead, it is using the death penalty as a threat,” he complained.

Turkey’s Kurdish question has existed since the first years of the republic, but it turned violent in 1984, years after the terrorist PKK took up arms. More than 40,000 civilians and security forces have been killed in clashes so far. The AK Party government announced its intention to settle the Kurdish question through peaceful methods in 2009. The expectation was that the democratic initiative would grant the country’s Kurds increased cultural and linguistic rights. However, the initiative lost momentum, and the Kurdish question has remained one of the bleeding wounds of Turkey. The Human Rights Association (İHD) is also one of the critics of the capital punishment. In a statement sent to Today’s Zaman, the association accused the AK Party of growing authoritarian and ignoring the lives of hundreds of hunger strikers. “Bringing back the death penalty means distancing from the universal system of [respecting] human rights. Such a move would damage Turkey’s bid for democratization and allow Turkey to rapidly turn into an authoritarian regime … Capital punishment was already abolished from the Turkish justice system and it cannot be brought back. Bringing back the death penalty means to make Turkey turn to the 20th century. Political authorities should never forget that people who struggle for democracy, peace and freedoms will not allow politicians to reinstate capital punishment,” the statement read.