Turkey: Draconian reforms give police wide-ranging powers to repress dissent
Photo: Riot police confront a protester at Istiklal street near Taksim square in Istanbul, on 15 June 2013. © OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
A range of security reforms in a bill passed by Turkey’s Parliament today will give the country’s police forces broad and dangerous new powers to detain people and use firearms to quell dissent, Amnesty International said.
The organization said the bill facilitates the already widespread practice of arbitrary detentions during protests and paves the way for further human rights violations including politically motivated criminal investigations and violations of the right to life.
Today’s vote to pass this draconian new law confirms our fears – Turkey’s Parliament has taken some of the worst abuses from the country’s appalling track record on policing and effectively endorsed them in law.
“Today’s vote to pass this draconian new law confirms our fears – Turkey’s Parliament has taken some of the worst abuses from the country’s appalling track record on policing and effectively endorsed them in law,” said Andrew Gardner, Researcher on Turkey at Amnesty International.
The articles passed – which amend 14 different laws or decrees – have been hotly debated. The timing is seen as especially contentious given parliamentary elections in June.
The “Law amending the Law on powers and duties of the police, other laws and decrees” – widely referred to simply as the “domestic security package” – has been the subject of intense debate in Parliament since 17 February.
Amnesty International said the bill’s provisions on the use of police force contradict international human rights standards. Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the use of lethal weapons should only be justified to protect people against imminent threats to life or serious injury and only when other less lethal means have failed.
“Authorizing the police to use firearms to protect property where there is no imminent threat to life flies in the face of international standards on policing and is likely to lead to further violations of the right to life,” said Andrew Gardner.
The bill also contains vaguely worded provisions giving powers to the police to detain individuals without a prosecutor’s order. The provisions allow for such detentions of up to 24 hours in individual crimes and up to 48 hours for crimes committed in the context of violent incidents at protests. The application of these provisions are very likely to result in further arbitrary detentions.
Other provisions erode the independence of prosecutors and the obligation to ensure that they can carry out their work without undue interference. Regional governors are granted the power to issue direct orders to police in the investigation of crimes.
Turkey already has a record of denying the right to peaceful protest, police use of excessive force – including with firearms – and politically motivated prosecutions.
“Despite widespread opposition from political parties, human rights organizations, lawyers’ associations and other civil society groups, the government has done all it can to railroad this legislation through,” said Andrew Gardner.
“The timing of the bill, so close to key parliamentary elections, provides the authorities with new powers to suppress dissent. Signing this bill into law will give a green light to widespread abuses against those who exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Passing the bill now allows it to come into law before the planned closure of Parliament on 5 April ahead of parliamentary elections on 7 June. It will enter into force after the President signs it into law – a mere formality that is expected to take place soon.
Opposition members have vowed they will call on Turkey’s Constitutional Court to overturn the bill.
The Turkish government has sought to justify the bill on the basis of violent demonstrations that took place in south-eastern Turkey during October 2014 in which up to 50 people died, hundreds were injured and major damage was caused to public and private property.
Turkey has a record of abuses of the rights of peaceful protesters, who will likely also be the targets of these vague and wide-ranging new security measures.
Between 28 May and mid July 2013, demonstrations known as the Gezi Park protests took place in all but two of Turkey’s 81 provinces, ranging between crowds of a few hundred to tens of thousands. Security forces across Turkey repeatedly used abusive and arbitrary force against peaceful protesters, sometimes with fatal consequences. At least four protesters died as a direct result of police use of excessive force, including 15-year-old Berkin Elvan and 22-year-old Abdullah Cömert, who were hit in the head by tear gas canisters fired at close range. More than 8,000 people were injured, some very seriously, during the wave of protests.
In 2014, police used excessive force against peaceful May Day demonstrators near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. A standoff is expected again on May Day this year, with demonstrators demanding to march on Taksim Square and the authorities maintaining that central Istanbul is off-limits.
On multiple occasions, Amnesty International has documented how Turkish police and security forces used tear gas and water cannon in excessive, unwarranted and arbitrary ways to disperse protesters, and fired at unarmed protesters using rubber bullets and plastic bullets, killing and seriously wounding some. Thousands more have been beaten by police and security forces. Protesters, human rights activists and journalists have been arrested and detained.
The adoption of the bill is the latest in a series of measures to repress dissent in Turkey. In December 2014 Amnesty International expressed concern about the Turkish authorities’ purchase of large amounts of tear gas and other chemical riot control agents from a South Korean company.