Turkey’s Security Bill: The Past and Present of Legislation of Violence and Police Impunity in Turkey

Turkey’s Security Bill: The Past and Present of Legislation of Violence and Police Impunity in Turkey

Although the air is still cold, it vibrates with the sounds of summer. In this case, music blaring out from the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) obtrusive election buses interceded with the occasional protests and the now very familiar chant of ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism.’ Election season has come early this year, and with it a range of gifts for everyone to enjoy. Departing from the tradition of fuel distribution in exchange for votes, and rather than the comically suggested bikinis, summer brings the new ‘Security Reform Package’ which is being hastily pushed through parliament by an AKP majority in preparation for predicted wide-spread protests during the summer elections. However, the preparation in this context is likely to become causation; a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Violence has already begun on the streets and even spilled over into the parliament itself as debates on the bill have spectacularly devolved into fist fights between the AKP and opposition deputies. Saliently, in a joint –and unprecedented– statement, the CHP and the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (People’s Democratic Party) (HDP) condemned the AKP for ‘drawing the first blood even before the legislation of the security bill.’ The asserted authoritarian and draconian nature of this bill has stimulated even more unlikely alliances, with the right-wing nationalist Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party) (MHP) and the Kurdish-leftist HDP uniting in opposition to this controversial proposal. The AKP have responded to this unexpected unification, asserting that ‘tutelage, pro-coup and parallel mind-set’ will come to an end due to this security bill, with Ahmet Davutoğlu further and comically labelling the opposition as the “Molotov coalition.”

During the Gezi Park protests of 2013 –and also during the protests which erupted to combat harsh internet control laws in January– we have already seen the use of excessive and disproportionate police violence in what Amnesty International deemed ‘brutal and unequivocal… a blatant disregard for the right to peaceful assembly.’ One example of AKP’s attempts to legislate fear is the use of the Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı (Intervention Vehicle to Social Events) (TOMA) during protests. For anyone who has had the privilege of a power-shower in chemical laced water courtesy of Turkey’s TOMAs, the concept of them being any more potent is a deeply disturbing one. The new and improved TOMAs will fire out coloured and chemical-ridden high pressure water, which will not only burn your skin but now has the added bonus of lasting for three days, making you easily identifiable and even more so, easily arrestable. Given the potentially deadly repercussions of this crack-down on dissent and AKP’s attempts to securitize the public sphere, public and civil consternation is understandable.

This bill, if all 132 items are passed –33 of which already have been unilaterally, due to a large AKP majority–, will not only legitimize this excessive violence but institutionalizes it. Human Rights Watch have issued a report asserting that this bill will “circumvent the role of prosecutors and judiciary in ways that directly undercut safeguards against the arbitrary abuse of power.” Changes to search-and-detain powers, longer prison terms for protesters involved in terrorist ‘propaganda,’ between three and five years prison time for concealing any part of one’s face during a protest –without which civilians will be even more susceptible to the veritable cornucopia of gasses rained down upon them–, increased use of wire-tapping as well as some extremely dubious legislation regarding rights –or lack thereof– during the first 48 hours of police detention all give a very powerful feeling of the rise of the panoptical police state. Furthermore, the vaguely-worded nature of many of these laws induces fear over even wider and legally justifiable arbitrary abuse of power without oversight.

Civil society groups such as Ankara Barolar Birliği (Ankara Bar Association) have been active in raising public awareness and campaigning, not only against the security bill but more generally against executive attacks on the judiciary, which have become prevalent since the February 14th corruption allegations and Erdoğan’s subsequent attempts to consolidate power purely within the executive branch. Marching last week, with a banner reading “This is a state of law, not a police state,” they made it clear that this bill will further prevent judiciary checks-and-balances and continue police impunity, however such protestations seem to have had little to no impact on the passing of the bill, nor has the oppositions filibustering or EU pressure. The only progress so far is that the AKP are in a negotiation process with the HDP over possible amendments, symbolising their awareness that this bill could become another (very large) road block on the already slow and tenuous road to a fragile peace with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK). This is particularly relevant as it was arguably the surge in violence and protests in the south-east of Turkey –where Kurds live predominantly–, in October, as a response to Turkey’s Syria policy– leaving 50 dead, which prompted this legal transformation in the first place. As the HDP deputy Ertuğrul Kürkçü reportedly told Al Jazeera, “Looking at the contents of this law, we have to ask: Is this a government preparing for peace?”

Turkey has a long history of police and military brutality so the AKP’s proposals should not come so much as a surprise but rather as a disappointment. Under their first two terms (2002-2010), reforms instigated in line with the EU accession process gave hope to many observers, domestic and international, that a new era was beginning. After the initial relief –particularly for Kurds who are now entitled to speak their own language amongst other inalienable rights that they have only recently acquired–, the AKP quickly began to espouse much of the same discursive violence and practice much of the same physical violence as their predecessors.

Not that I in any way wish to down-play the magnitude of this situation, however an important point must be raised here. Although on the same path of their predecessors, the AKP has used markedly less violence than them and cannot be realistically compared with 1970s or the 1980s military junta who disappeared, tortured and murdered thousands. As young protesters lamented during Gezi over the excessive use of force, one Turkish woman who was active during the 70s leftist student movements countered; ‘you are running away from plastic-bullets. We were running away from real ones…’ Nevertheless, this may not be the case for long. Another aspect of the proposed bill would allow the use of live ammunition against anyone using or suspected of using incendiary devices, either Molotov cocktails or fireworks. The 80s puts the current atmosphere of fear in Turkey into context however. Historical memory from this era combined with a tangible erosion of civil liberties and a corresponding increase –since the optimistic times of AKP’s first two terms at least– in state surveillance all contributes to a growing societal tension. With journalists and citizens being imprisoned over tweets critical of the government, increasing attacks on press and individual freedoms, a school child detained for defamation charges and martial law sporadically imposed in the east, it seems that history is repeating itself- be that in a post-modern way.

This brings us to the real impasse in Turkey. Although often loath to admit it, even leftists are well aware that there is no real political opposition/solution to the AKP. The CHP, although singing a liberal tune these days, is simply the negative ideograph of the former, its difference largely articulated through the persecution and oppression of alternative minorities or ‘marginals.’ Opposition deputies’ polemical angst against this contentious security bill subsequently appears somewhat vacuous in this context and society is well aware that should the CHP gain power, we could expect to see much of the same. Similarly, the military saviour complex in Turkey has deteriorated, as has the military’s power meaning those –very few–who expect the army to step in to protect democracy and secularism will likely be sorely disappointed.

A relative societal apathy towards this security bill can thus be explained dually. Firstly, lack of a real opposition to counteract the AKP’s strength and secondly, an understanding that although detrimental and possibly deadly, this bill is not only continuous of an enduring political culture of authoritarianism and violence in the country but additionally, is simply the institutionalization and legislation of practices that were already occurring, particularly in the south-east of Turkey where Kurdish population is the majority. The real issue here is not the legality of widespread police violence/erosion of civil liberties but rather the ethical and moral framework that has allowed such practices to occur in the first place. Moreover, this is not a problem specific to Turkey. One commenter lamented over Washington’s muted response to this law, purportedly due to their wish to maintain good relations with Erdoğan. I would counter that their muted response is far more conditioned by their own negligent attitude towards civil liberties and equally draconian ‘anti-terror’ laws, not least of which, those stemming from the Orwellian-styled ‘Patriot Act.’

This is an important point to address as many of the country’s problems, from patriarchy to authoritarianism, are blamed solely on the AKP. This is deceptive, however, and distracts from combating the causal issues that produce and re-produce the same system of polarization, discrimination, violence and elite impunity –be it Kemalist, Islamist or even leftist. As Robert M. Pirsig argued, ‘to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government… because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself… If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.’

Harriet Fildes, Deputy Editor, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)

Please cite this publication as follows:

Fildes, H. (March, 2015), “Turkey’s Security Bill: The Past and Present of Legislation of Violence and Police Impunity in Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 3, pp.57-62, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8380)



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