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New Law Threatens Fundamental Freedoms in Turkey

On March 27, the Turkish Parliament passed the “Legal Package to Protect Freedoms,” a comprehensive set of security laws that will greatly expand police power, eroding many fundamental freedoms in Turkey.

First introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in February 2015, the package of laws, originally containing 132 articles, was met with strident opposition in Turkey’s parliament. On two separate occasions in February, brawls broke out on the floor of the parliament that left lawmakers hospitalized. However, despite the opposition’s disapproval and delaying tactics, the legislation was pushed through the AKP-dominated parliament.

In mid-March, after passing 67 of the proposed articles despite strong opposition, the AKP withdrew another 63 articles, leaving only two for further consideration. These final two articles passed on March 27 after a parliamentary session that lasted more than 16 hours. Out of a total of 231 deputies who took part in the voting, 199 voted in favor of the two articles while 32 voted against them.

Among its most controversial provisions, the package:

  • Expands police power to carry out searches, including those of people and their cars based only on “reasonable suspicion” and the ability to conduct strip searches;
  • Allows police to wiretap individuals for up to 48 hours without a warrant;
  • Allows police officers to “take under protection” anyone considered to be a public disturbance, threat to security or private property without a court order or approval from a prosecutor;
  • Allows police officers to keep people in custody for up to 48 hours without a prosecutor’s approval;
  • Increases prison sentences for demonstrators:
    • With fireworks, slingshots and iron marbles
    • With Molotov cocktails, blades or other tools that could be used to injure
    • Who partially or fully cover their faces
  • Mandates that in case of any damage during protests, the damage will be compensated by the responsible individuals rather than the government;
  • Gives police officers the ability to use force, allowing them to shoot at protestors to prevent them from harming property without having to use less harmful measures first ;
  • Expands the powers of governors, who are appointed by government, to include some powers of prosecutors such as giving orders to police to investigate crimes.

The package has also met with strong international concern. Susan Corke, the director of Eurasia Programs at Freedom House, warned that “it is no exaggeration to say that the future of Turkish democracy hangs in the balance with this law.” The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri underlined that the package is at odds with the prerequisites of a democratic state, violating the right to demonstrate, freedom of expression and the right to privacy. “If these developments continue, one might question if Turkey wants to join EU,” she said.

The drawn-out debates over the security package have coincided with strong concern from the U.S. Congress on the status of media freedom and other fundamental freedoms in Turkey. In a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated March 18, 74 senators expressed their concern about the “persistence of human rights violations in Turkey.” The letter came one week after 90 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Kerry in support of media freedom in Turkey.

A third letter, sent by Reps. William Keating (D-MA), Edward Royce (R-CA), Thomas Rooney (R-FL), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Adam Smith (D-WA) was sent to Kerry the same day the final two articles of the security bill passed. “We are very concerned that without a clear statement that human rights, media freedom and the rule of law are integral to US policy toward Turkey, Erdoğan is likely to step up pressure on his critics, opponents and others who simply do not agree with his policies and thereby further undermine Turkey’s democratic heritage,” the letter said.

This “Legal Package to Protect Freedoms” comes on the heels of several other major changes to Turkey’s security law. Turkey has also granted blanket amnesty for officers of the National Intelligence Organization, added legal amendments in December that allowed the judiciary to issue arrest warrants based on “reasonable suspicion” which paved the way for a wave of arrests against the free media, and created a parallel legal system of “peace justices” that allows for the government to side-step the regular judiciary in cases dealing with the “parallel structure,” a term used by the government to refer to members of the Gülen Movement but effectively functioning as a catch-all categorization for those that oppose President Erdoğan.

This new legal package represents a significant further step towards an authoritarian police state in Turkey.

Seyma Akyol contributed to this post.

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