Turkey moves closer to becoming a fully fledged police state

Ready to crack down. EPA/Sedat Suna

The Turkish parliament has been debating the government’s proposed new security law, generally called the “domestic security package”. So far, the first 16 articles of the proposed law have been passed by the parliament amid fighting between the opposition and the government MPs, and discussion on the remaining articles is expected to resume shortly.

The government has an absolute majority in parliament, and will face little difficulty in passing the law eventually, but the opposition is determined to do all it can to delay the process.

It objects to the way the government is rushing the law through the parliament without proper parliamentary scrutiny, and to the actual measures the new law contains, which they fear will further undermine Turkey’s fraying democracy.

There are concerns that by giving extensive powers to the police to suppress political protests, the law will not just fuel Turkey’s worsening poltical polarisation – it will turn the country into a police state.

Tightening the screws

The law raises the prospect of increased arbitrary detention, excessive use of firearms by police and politically motivated criminal investigations. Amnesty International has called the proposed law a serious threat to human rights, and Human Rights Watch has also voiced its concerns but it is not only the human rights organisations that fear the consequences once parliament passes the law.

Kati Piri, the European parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, described the proposals as a threat to the essential conditions for a democratic state and as another step away from European values – sentiments echoed by American diplomats.

The proposals will allow the police to keep people in detention for up to 48 hours without the need of a judge’s approval, and adds fireworks, hand catapults and metal marbles to the long list of items considered to be weapons. People caught possessing them will face prison sentences of between two-and-a-half to four years.

A swat team in Istanbul. EPA/Sedat Suna

Similar penalties are proposed for protesters who cover their face during protests in order to protect themselves against the excessively used tear gas, or who wear any clothing resembling a uniform.

And on top of all this, the proposed law closes off avenues of redress and protection against police brutality.

But the most controversial measure of all will permit the use of firearms against protesters who throw petrol bombs during protests. This could lead to a sharp increase in deaths by police gunfire, which are already frequent: 11 demonstrators were killed during the Gezi Park protests, and other protesters have been killed by the police on a regular basis in the majority Kurdish areas of Turkey.

Many of these protests were peaceful gatherings until police started to use violence against protesters - and many Turkish citizens fear the outcome of further empowering the police.

Crushing dissent

The law’s timing is also a cause for worry. The past few years have seen a creeping authoritarianism set in under the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP). It has been felt especially during incidents of collective mobilisation, and has mainly targeted opposition groups such as left-wingers, secularists and the Kurds.

The government faced widespread condemnation when it attempted to cut off access to social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube – decisions which have since been reversed. It continues to keep many journalists locked up, usually for covering stories about the Kurdish conflict or government corruption.

Don’t try anything. EPA

Rather than being a response to a genuine need to protect the public order, many see the proposed law as being about nothing more than suppressing citizens’ right to express dissent. In recent years, social unrest in Turkey has been growing and getting louder; besides frequent protests against the government and in favour of Kurdish rights, protests against gendered violence and dangerous working conditions are happening more and more regularly.

There are many causes of these protests, but they are all beginning to converge on the same themes: opposition to the social conservatism and free-market economics that underpin the government’s economic and social policies.

But the law’s likely passage shows the AKP government has little time for these protests. Once heralded as an example of burgeoning Muslim democracy and an aspiring member of the EU, Turkey is moving ever closer to authoritarianism – and the remaining centres of public opposition can do little about it.