No more popular protests? Reflections on Turkey’s Domestic Security Bill

Accuse the government of illegal use of force by the police, and what you get in return is the government inventing ways to make it legal, by treating popular protests as potential acts of terrorism.

Oguz Alyanak
14 March 2015
Turkish police fire tear gas on May day protesters, 2014.

Turkish police fire tear gas on May day protesters, 2014. Demotix/ yenta kurtcebe. All rights reserved.What sense does one make of the term public order? National will? Terrorist organization? The answer is that it all depends on who uses it these days.

When, for example, members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) propose a domestic security bill that aims to secure public order against plots devised by terrorist organizations, and argue that the bill reflects the national will, the meanings of these terms become problematic for some in Turkey, who are certainly having a hard time fitting into the “national” in national will.

That some, however, represents approximately half of the constituents. That is the “other 50%” of “AKP’s 50%”. Mathematically speaking, halves represent equal shares. Politically speaking the balance in Turkey is highly skewed. Simply put, the laws that the AKP make on behalf of one half come at the expense of the other. Hence we witness protestors on the streets demanding fair treatment. With the new bill, however, the AKP says, No more!   

Draft Bill on Domestic Security

For approximately the past three weeks, members of the Parliament were busy negotiating the 132-article draft bill on domestic security. The bill offers a number of amendments to existing laws some of which concern the expansion of police power in addressing popular protests. “Negotiating” may be too positive a verb to describe the nature of discussions in the Parliament considering that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) already holds enough seats to pass the bill unilaterally. And to save the suspense, the AKP is doing exactly that.

Despite its incapacity to stop the process, the opposition fights back…literally! Staging sit-ins and engaging in fistfights, members of the opposition parties such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—which combined represent roughly half of the constituents in Turkey but hold a mere 223 seats (of the current total of 535) due to using the d’Hondt method with a 10% barrier—are getting physical and to put it bluntly, playing a dirty game. Through such means, the opposition intends to slow down the process, thereby forcing the AKP to rewrite some of the articles or to withdraw the bill altogether.

 While various members of the AKP give mixed signals with regards to revisiting some of the articles, both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are adamant about passing the bill in its entirety. It is a no brainer that with general elections in June fast approaching, AKP needs every opportunity possible to instill in its constituents the belief that the party remains strong even without its charismatic ex-Prime Minister Erdogan, who now acts as a quasi-leader of both the AKP and the Turkish Presidency. And the draft bill is a perfect opportunity to prove just that. 

So, why all the fuss about this bill? Opponents argue that the bill is an authoritarian measure that carries AKP’s intention to suppress criticism, particularly the kind that takes the form of street protests.  Proponents respond by stating that the bill represents the will of the majority in Turkey for greater safety and protection on the streets, which they argue can only be sustained by elevating punishment for offenders, and providing police forces in Turkey with greater authority to deal with them. Hence the lackluster official name of the bill: “Polis Vazife ve Salahiyet Kanunu, Jandarma Teşkilat, Görev ve Yetkileri Kanunu, Nüfus Hizmetleri Kanunu ile Bazı Kanun ve Kanun Hükmünde Kararnamelerde Değişiklik Yapılmasına Dair Kanun Tasarısı” [Draft Bill on Amending the Law on Duties and Powers of Police, Law on Gendarmerie Organization, Task and Authority, Law on the Civil Registration Services and Other Decree Laws]. 

The bill can also be seen as a show of force, or even an act of revenge. It provides the AKP with an opportunity to intervene in critical debates on popular protests whose target in the recent years has been the AKP itself. Until now, the AKP was accused of abusing its administrative power and using the police as a tool to curb criticism. Proponents of the Gulen movement have been seeking active support from the international community to speak up against AKP’s policies of containment. Random searches on media conglomerates, a recent one being the pro-Fethullah Gulen news agency Zaman, and the forced firing of columnists have engendered growing criticism by international media. The AKP, however, has grown a thick skin to international criticism, which has gained momentum since the Gezi Park Protests of 2013.  In addition to starting legal proceedings against participants of the Gezi Park protests who are accused of attempting a coup against the government and forming terrorist organizations, the government has also attempted to criminalize emergency care to deter medical personnel from providing medical aid to protestors.

It seems that the lesson from prolonged episodes of criticism and popular unrest, the Kobane protests of 2014 marking the most recent of these, has been well learned. If you cannot fight the law, be the law. Such is the “in your face” attitude that the bill represents—and it also is what leaves opponents frustrated. Accuse the government of illegal use of force by the police, and what you get in return is the government inventing ways to make it legal. The domestic security bill, in particular the first section of the package that concerns the police and gendarmerie does just that. Under the heading, “General Reasoning”, the signatories state:

“That recent popular events carry the risk to transform into propagandist acts by terrorist organizations, thereby threatening the livelihood of our citizens, damaging public and private property, and even leading to looting attempts necessitate taking new measures that will protect the freedom-security balance.”

In short, by treating popular protests as potential acts of terrorism, the bill proposes reshaping laws that now makes legitimate extensive use of police force in dealing with public unrest.

Striking changes

The before and after effects of the bill are nicely summarized in a compilation by Hurriyet Daily News. To recap some of the striking changes:

- Before, the police could stop someone on the road, ask for identification and do a quick pat down to make sure that s/he is not carrying illegal substances and/or firearms. In order to do strip search, a car search, or to detain (now up to 48 hours, an increase from the previous 24), police forces previously needed permission by judges or prosecutors. The bill enables police officers to take action without waiting for the go-ahead—thereby leaving the subject at the police’s judgment and mercy.

- Within the context of popular protests, police forces were previously responsible for “catching” protestors, and detaining them following the prosecutor’s approval. The bill provides police forces with the legal grounds to “remove” protestors from the scene. The where and the how are left unknown. “We know that in protests, girls are harassed by the police. Let us say that these police forces caught some of these women and took them to a forest. In their official report, however, they stated that they let go of them. But actually, they did not. They raped them. Or beat them up. Who will be in control of [supervise] this situation? It is uncertain,” writes the author of a recent petition on Change.org, which has so far obtained over 41.000 signatories. The author’s worry is sadly a valid one.

- The new bill also expands the police’s right to fire. While police forces were previously given the right to use firearms, and with changes made in 2007 given the legal authority to “shoot to kill” the new bill extends the use of firearms by the police against those who attempt to use a Molotov cocktail and/or other explosive instruments. Given the worrisome track record of the Turkish police in handling protestors, which in numerous instances led to casualties and life-altering injuries, the changes proposed through the security bill risk encouraging reckless practices by police forces.

- Nonetheless, the bill is “foresighted” in the sense that it expects unrests to end before they even start. Participating in a protest is now a daring move since covering of the face—with clothing to hide one’s identity or gas masks to protect from tear gas—is now punishable by up to four years of jail time. Wearing signs and uniforms of an “illegal” organization is also punishable by up to three years.

- The bill also makes two key structural changes. First it transfers more power to government appointed provincial governors by giving them the right to use municipal resources in keeping public order. That some of these municipalities may be under the administrative responsibility of governors elected from opposition parties is what makes this change particularly problematic. The rift between governors and mayors was clear during the Gezi Park Protests when municipalities controlled by opposition parties did not provide water to police vehicles equipped with water cannons. With the new bill, failure to comply with the requests of governors is made a punishable act. The governors also assume the role of judges and prosecutors by assuming the power to dispatch the police to pursue investigations without waiting for the approval of the prosecutor. This, as Human Rights Watch rightly points out, is a clear violation of a legal norm.

- The second key structural change concerns the function of the gendarmerie.  Although the Turkish police has more recently been receiving its share of media fame for its inhuman ways of dealing with street protestors, the Gendarmerie in Turkey (and in particular, the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit, known in Turkish as JITEM) has an equally troubling reputation for its inhumane manners of dealing with disturbances in Kurdish populated towns during the 1990s. The domestic security bill puts the Ministry of Interior in charge of the gendarmerie forces. Previously, gendarmerie forces were supervised by the Gendarmerie General Command, which is a branch under the Turkish Armed Forces. Now, the governors will assume the role of chief of gendarmerie personnel within their districts. This, the opposition parties argue, will create an additional armed branch of the AKP—first the “AK-Police” and now the “AK-Gendarmerie”, as one member of the opposition cynically stated.  Officials of the AKP, however, argue that putting the gendarmerie under administrative command has the aim to demilitarize, and not to politicize, this armed unit. 

What’s next?

As of 12 March, the first 67 articles of the proposed bill have been approved by the Parliament. Among them are articles that cover the changes listed above. Following their approval, the AKP has asked for the remaining articles to be tabled. This move, though abrupt, is a strategic one considering that the Parliament will officially close starting the first week of April in order to provide sufficient time for political parties to prepare for the upcoming general elections.

While it is highly likely that the AKP will remain in the government post the June elections, some pundits expect it to lose seats in the Parliament—thereby risking its current status that enables the AKP to unilaterally pass the laws. It is not too surprising then to see that the AKP intends to keep what it gained so far rather than gamble away its gains by pushing for the remaining articles. The voting procedure for the bill requires one final vote on the approved articles (the first 67), and the President’s signature. Two weeks is more than sufficient for the AKP (and President Erdogan) to do exactly that. After the elections, the remaining articles on “lower priority” topics pertaining to civil registration services and other decree laws can be brought back to the agenda and voted on separately.

While the general elections are on the way, so are negotiations with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and leaders of the People’s Democratic Party, HDP for disarmament of Kurdish guerillas which carries the possibility of offering a peaceful end to Turkey’s prolonged war with the armed guerillas of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, PKK. Despite AKP’s ambivalent attitude towards Kobane, negotiations are going on. Leaders of the HDP, however, have made numerous public declarations of their disapproval of the domestic security bill, and expect AKP officials to make amendments before making the final approval on the passed articles. Whether the AKP will give into HDP’s demands to come out as the victor of the peace talks or keep its staunch attitude to go for the nationalist votes—and jeopardize the peace talks—is a move that we await with interest.

Another obstacle that the AKP will have to face is the anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. While the bill aims to deter popular protests, the bill, in itself, as well as the way in which it has been passed unilaterally, offer a strong motive for opponents of AKP to occupy the streets once again in order to voice their disapproval of authoritarian moves. The bill will certainly provide the AKP with legal grounds to use greater force against protestors. The upcoming months will however put to test if these iron-fisted policies will alleviate AKP’s woes of public criticism or further exacerbate them.

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