Turkey: Do increased police powers signify desertion of democracy?

Expanded police powers and arrest of journalists signify a pivot away from a previous focus on democratic consolidation. The international community must pay attention to Turkey’s new security bill.

Melissa DeOrio
9 January 2015
Turkish police in front of Gezi Park. Hans Rusinek. All rights reserved.

Turkish police in front of Gezi Park. Hans Rusinek. All rights reserved.

Erdoğan, the country’s newly elected President is increasingly gluttonous for power. Refusing to wait for a parliamentary vote on a constitutional amendment regarding the role of the President, he has taken to slowly absorbing the duties of Prime Minister Davotoğlu. Just two days ago, the AKP announced that Erdoğan will begin chairing cabinet meetings in January, a power previously reserved for the Prime Minister. With this increase of power has come a shift in control, with Erdoğan guiding his country away from its previous focus on westernization and democratic consolidation.

On December 14, 24 individuals were arrested by Turkish police on charges of forgery, slander and establishing a terrorist group. Mainly comprising members of the media, the suspects have one thing in common; they are all supporters of the Gülen Hizmet movement. Fetullah Gülen is the leader of an Islamic social and cultural organization that promotes a tolerant Islam rooted in service, education and hard work. 

The arrests made on December 14 directly follow an amendment to police powers, allowing them to arrest individuals with mere “reasonable suspicion.” The recent detainments serve as a perfect example of what Turkey may look like. Ankara will continue to use these reforms to its own end, arresting dissenting voices in an attempt to quiet the opposition. 

Turkey: Do increased police powers signify desertion of democracy?

Ankara’s new security bill, adopted at the beginning of December, has caused ripples throughout the west, as they seem to indicate a definitive shift away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. The newly adopted reforms place the personal freedoms of Turkish citizens in grave danger, deteriorating already-fragile checks and balances between the government, law-enforcement and the judiciary. The newly passed bill will effectively prevent the judiciary from providing a necessary check on the powers of the police.

Although often overlooked, scholars consider civil-military relations to be one of the most crucial factors in successful democratic consolidation. In his book, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Larry Diamond states “if the police are corrupt, abusive, unaccountable, or even lazy and incompetent, this cannot help but affect popular perceptions of the authority and legitimacy of the state.” Despite many successful reforms that have largely removed the military from politics, Turkey’s tenuous democracy runs the risk of inviting military response.

One of the new provisions of the bill serves to increase the punishment for individuals detained while participating in protests. However, in reality they mainly broaden the powers of the police in regards to criminal investigation, allowing them to effectively side step the judiciary to detain suspects.

As detailed in a report provided by Emma Sinclair-Webb at Human Rights Watch, while the new bill includes 43 articles, however, five are particularly threatening to the democratic progress of Turkey.

The first serves to expand the power of the police to carry out searches with only “reasonable suspicion” against an individual. This amendment will reverse a previous reform made in February of this year, which would allow police to search individuals and property only when there is “strong suspicion based upon concrete evidence” and a court order. There are no longer provisions to ensure an absence of arbitrary searches, allowing the police to target an individual without even the existence of a warrant. This will prevent suspects from challenging unlawful actions.

Another provision increases the ability of a court to seize an individuals’ assets. This particular provision will extend the breadth of crimes which the police are allowed to employ seizures of public property. As mentioned by Sinclair-Webb, this will allow the government to use the “attempt to overthrow constitutional order” charge, one which has been used on individuals opposed by the government, regardless of little to no evidence to any related activities.

The third concerning provision further expands the types of crimes for which the court can authorize wiretaps. The power to order wire-tapping will be given to a specific branch of the judiciary termed the “criminal judges of the peace.” The expansion of this provision can only give the government an increased ability to violate the privacy of citizens it feels threatened by.

Fourth, the bill restricts lawyers’ access to evidence filed against individuals. This provision is again amending another reform passed in February made to align the constitution with EU recommendations. It will allow evidence to be withheld “in cases the prosecutor deems the investigation may be imperiled.” The effects of this amendment are already evident in the recent detainment of members of the media and ex-police chiefs in what has become known as “Black Sunday. Lawyers of the suspects have claimed that they are unable to see the content of investigation files, preventing them from knowing exactly what charges are filed against them. This is said to be the result of a confidentiality order placed on the cases by the prosecutor.

Finally, the new bill will make it a criminal offense to “make threats” against public officials. This provision will allow the government to prosecute individuals who are critical of the government as well as to criminalize threats made by other public officials. These offenses carry the possibility of 2-5 years in prison, endangering dissenting voices and threatening, if not revoking, people’s right to free speech.

Turkish police forces at the republic monument. Hans Rusinek. All rights reserved.

Turkish Police forces at the republic monument. Hans Rusinek. All rights reserved.

The importance of effective policing

The police are the means which a state can use to keep the military out of internal security affairs, and therefore politics. Consequently, this instrument should be very carefully attended to, lest its deterioration serve as an opportunity for the military to forcibly achieve order. Recommendations for improving the role of the police within Turkey are regularly made by the European Commission. In the latest European Commission report, specific concerns are noted regarding the independence of the judiciary and a separation of powers. One crucial tenant of police oversight that Turkey currently lacks is an independent body or monitoring commission that can oversee police conduct.

While the Turkish constitution does contain amendments dedicated to the rights of citizens and the formation of protests, the government still reserves the right to subjectively consider anything “unlawful.” These provisions highlight a specific and recurring problem within the Turkish constitution. Laws focus supremely on legality rather than the freedoms guaranteed to individuals.

In specific reference to the powers of the police, the report also noted that current laws allow for the dispersal of any demonstration deemed unlawful, whether or not it may be peaceful in nature, further threatening individual’s right to openly disagree with their government.

While Turkey has made grand strides toward democratic reforms in the past decade, Ankara has clearly decided to swing in another direction. The reforms iterated in the new security bill have resulted in rigid responses on behalf of the European Union.

The European Parliament has had a strong reaction to the recent arrest of 24 Turkish citizens, most of them members of the media, calling the move an “attack on press freedom.” Some officials believe that it represents an official move away from democratic reforms and a shift toward a more authoritarian nature. As the vice president of the EP, Alexander Lambsdorff stated, recent events demonstrate “beyond reasonable suspicion” that the AKP has abandoned its ambitions to join the EU.

The United States’ response has remained more muted.

US officials have only advised their ally not to “endanger the core values of Turkey’s democratic foundation.” However, this recommendation seems particularly weak, considering that Turkey will now violate the democratic spirit simply by following their newly reformed constitution.

It is understandable that the United States would like to tread lightly as to maintain its relationship with Erdoğan. It is clear that that the US recognizes the necessity of working with Turkey in the future due to its importance in the region. However, in light of recent events, and Erdoğan’s unwavering determination to proceed however he would like, it would appear that Washington does not have much to lose.

Recognizing the critical dangers that these new laws pose for Turkish society, the United States should place greater pressure on the Turkish government to reconsider its turn away from democracy. Regardless of the country's internal politics, Turkey will remain a critical player on the world stage due to its geopolitical position. A moderate Turkey will serve as a powerful tool in an increasingly tumultuous region, while an unstable and polarized Turkey can only signify a dangerous turn of events in the next decade.

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