Erdoğan mulling to bring back death penalty, with God’s will
Regress is progress. This could be one of the doublethink slogans of Ingsoc omitted by George Orwell in his magnum opus 1984. But under Tayyip Erdoğan and his ultra-right allies who helped him be reelected for a second term, albeit this time with full presidential powers, doublethink is far from being fiction – and dystopia is reality. The Ottoman past is the future. Old is the new “new”. Journalism is terrorism. Death penalty is the ultimate justice. And one of the first “reforms” of the new government could be to reintroduce it.
Death penalty has already been on the agenda since the aborted coup attempt of July 15, 2016. “Soon, soon, don’t worry. It’s happening soon, God willing,” Erdoğan already announced two years ago as crowds attending the opening of Ankara’s new train station during Turkey’s National Day chanted “We want the death penalty!”. When confronted with the same chants at the first anniversary of the coup attempt on July 15, 2017, he passed the buck to the legislators. “We are a state of law. The moment [the law on death penalty] comes to my attention from the Parliament, I will approve it,” Erdoğan said.
But what looked like a plea prompted by a reaction of anger and outrage then, is turning into a political argument now. Only Brazil, Argentina and Gambia have reinstated death penalty after abolishing it. Ironically, death penalty was each time brought back after coups and by military junta regimes. If Turkey’s new leadership keeps its vow, they would become the first democratically elected government to do so.
Erdoğan’s electoral ally, the National Movement Party (MHP), is a fervent supporter of capital punishment. Its leader, Devlet Bahçeli, was the deputy Prime Minister of the three-party coalition which abolished death penalty back in 2002 as part of the accession negotiations with the EU. Not one to laugh at ironies of life, Bahçeli has been very vocal on the issue for years. A few days after Erdoğan was telling the crowd “It’s happening soon, God willing,” Bahçeli was already calling his bluff. “If the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is ready, the MHP is more than willing,” Bahçeli said.
Freshly invested with executive powers, this time around Erdoğan not only will hardly be able to use the Parliament as an excuse, he has also to please the MHP, whose brownshirt rhetoric he has fully embraced. As a result, it is far from surprising that the death penalty debate has been revived and it might be less speculative than ever.
Public opinion grows over cases of child abuse and killing
After the coup attempt, the call for death penalty was limited to devout AKP supporters. This is, however, changing. The back-to-back murders of two children – 8-year-old Eylül in Ankara and 4-year-old Leyla in the eastern province of Ağrı – under a cloud of sexual abuse still not entirely dissipated, have mobilized public opinion. Countless cases of child abuse have pricked public outrage in the past, including the sexual abuse of young children at the student lodging of the Islamist Ensar Foundation in Central Anatolia or the rape of a 9-month-old baby in Gaziantep, to name just a few. But never has public opinion seemed so ready to accept capital punishment for offenders.
The MHP have cited horrendous sex crimes against minors to stir the capital punishment pot. Pop stars are joining in. Murat Boz, a pepsi spokeperson-level celebrity, tweeted that death penalty would be “a deterrent” against such crimes. He was hailed by fellow pop singer Demet Akalın. One actress, Berna Laçin, dared to disagree. “If death penalty was the solution, Medina wouldn’t hold records for rape. Let scientists, psychiatrists, social scientists and jurists find a solution together,” she said from her Twitter account. She faces a criminal investigation for “degrading people’s religious values” over that tweet.
Erdoğan, for once, is opting to play it cautiously. “One step at a time” he told when he was asked about it on July 4. “You know, we need to make a constitutional change,” he said. And yet, his AKP and the MHP do hold the majority at Parliament. The breakaway nationalist fraction, the GOOD Party, declared the end of their electoral alliance with the main opposition, which suggests they also may endorse the government’s legal proposals if those are consistent enough with their right-wing line.
All in all, the parties involved in bringing death penalty back are rather bound in a political and ideological consensus than a circumstantial one. Their eagerness is a warning sign that capital punishment is particularly meant for political prisoners.
Erdoğan threatened HDP candidate during campaign
In a shocking moment during the campaign, Erdoğan threatened the jailed presidential Kurdish candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, with execution. Erdoğan was answering chants for the death penalty while criticizing Demirtaş during a speech he made in Kocaeli on June 11. “As I said before, if the Parliament sent the decisions to me I would have approved it long ago,” the incumbent president told them.
The death sentence was commuted into aggravated life imprisonment when it was scrapped those years ago. This was precisely the sentence given to three journalists, Ahmet Altan, his brother Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak who were recently convicted. Would those journalists be executed had the capital punishment been in effect?
By this reasoning, the deterrent value of capital punishment would be more effective against political dissent than sexual offenders or other forms of criminality. This is a country where rape convicts often receive reduction of sentence on grounds that they were “provoked” by their victim. Not only do the reasons put forward to reinstate death penalty ring hollow, they fail to mask the incapacity of a government to establish a comprehensive program to fight against sexual crimes and femicide. Murders of women have increased 25 percent in 2017 while child abuse skyrocketed 700 percent in the last 10 years. The more logical conclusion is not that these crimes are encouraged by the absence of a public hangman but by a culture of impunity in a country gripped by conservatism, bigotry and unquestioned patriarchism.
The election of Erdoğan as the country’s first executive President was meant to herald what his Justice and Development Party (AKP) called the “New Turkey.” However, the first days of this new era have had the musty scent of a bygone age.
Photo: A group of government supporters call for the reinstitution of death penalty.