Erdogan revives spectre of death penalty in Turkey

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Istanbul (AFP) – “What George, Hans or Helga say does not interest us!” roars Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “What counts for us is what Ayse, Murat, Mehmet, Hatice say! What Allah says!”.

This mantra — setting common European names against Turkish ones and finally invoking God — has become Erdogan’s standard rhetoric to tell the European Union he does not care about their reaction if Turkey restores the death penalty.

But such a move would have immense ramifications — automatically drawing the curtain on the half-century drama that has been Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Some analysts thought that Erdogan would drop his rhetoric on capital punishment, helpful for winning the support of nationalists, after the April 16 referendum on enhancing his powers.

But with the referendum won, albeit by a narrow margin and the opposition claiming fraud, Erdogan has vigorously returned to the topic.

After proclaiming victory, Erdogan promised thousands of supporters chanting “Idam!” (“Execution!”) that Turkey would hold a referendum on the issue if parliament failed to adopt it.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani wrote on Twitter that he was “very concerned” by Erdogan’s comments, saying the reintroduction would be a “red line” for the European Union.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the move would be “synonymous with the end of (Turkey’s) European dream”. 

– ‘Here’s the rope’  –

Turkey abolished the death penalty in all circumstances in 2004 — two years after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power — as a key pillar of its bid to join the EU.

The EU states that abolishing the death penalty is an absolute pre-condition for membership. The Council of Europe, of which Turkey has been a member since 1950, makes abolition a condition for new members.

While it was a previous coalition led by the Democratic Left Party that initiated the move to abolish the death penalty, Erdogan had in the early years of his rule resisted nationalist pressure for it to be used.

This included the case of the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured in 1999. He was sentenced to death but had his term commuted to life imprisonment. 

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli at the time famously brandished a noose at a rally to challenge Erdogan to execute Ocalan.

“Here is the rope! Hang him if you can,” Bahceli shouted, throwing the rope into the crowds. 

But a decade later, Erdogan is publicly praising Bahceli for his support for capital punishment and, to hisses and boos from the crowds, lambasting Republican People’s Party (CHP) chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu for his opposition.

Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey, said the narrowness of his victory means Erdogan will remain reliant on the MHP, which backed the constitutional changes set out in the referendum.

“Issues such as reintroducing the death penalty and politically disconnecting Turkey from the EU are key ingredients in the political narrative of both parties,” he told AFP.

– ‘Bitter consequences’ –

Supporters of the move in Turkey argue capital punishment needs to be restored in light of the July 15, 2016 failed coup that left 249 people dead.

But the death penalty remains a sensitive issue in Turkey’s coup-scarred history and many have no appetite to revive the painful memories of the past.

Erdogan has himself often evoked the hanging of the prime minister Adnan Menderes — his political hero — along with two ministers after the 1960 military coup as an example of the bad old Turkey. 

More executions followed coups in 1971, including of student militant Deniz Gezmis, and the 1980 coup when dozens were sent to the gallows.

“This nation has seen in the past how bitter the consequences of the death penalty are and the backlash that has caused”, Faruk Logoglu, a former ambassador to Washington and opposition MP, told AFP.

“Society must come to its senses,” he added.

Turkey has not executed anyone since since left-wing militant Hidir Aslan was hanged on October 25, 1984.

“The death penalty would mean the automatic end of relations with the EU. The cost would be much too dear,” Logoglu said. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has returned to the topic of the death penalty after winning a referendum to boost his powers
Copyright AFP/File OZAN KOSE
Supporters cheer Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on April 17, 2017
Copyright AFP/File ADEM ALTAN
Turkey abolished the death penalty in all circumstances in 2004
Copyright AFP/File Yoav LEMMER