home Human Rights, Middle East, Politics Becoming a Police State Will Not Make Turkey Safer

Becoming a Police State Will Not Make Turkey Safer

In Turkey as of late there are increasing fears among many Turks that their country is devolving into a police state. In the wake of the 2013 protests which gripped the country and the more recent October 2014 protests in Southeastern Turkey (mounted primarily by Kurds protesting Turkish inaction over the Islamic State siege of Kobani in neighbouring Syria) many Turks fear that a police with broader powers and authority will see to Turkey ultimately devolving into a police state.

In the run-up to the 2013 protests centred around the Taksim Gezi Park redevelopment in Istanbul I vividly remember seeing a rather political demonstration around Taksim Square being overlooked by a TOMA armored riot control vehicle – a domestically produced truck built to disperse protesters or rioters with its powerful water cannons and tear gas – creeping slowly around the square. TOMA, I later learned, is a Turkish acronym which in English roughly translates to the Orwellian-esque “Intervention Vehicle to Social Events”.

Seeing the manner in which the police shadowed the protest I wasn’t one bit surprised to see the tumult which followed and the accusations leveled by demonstrators against many members of the police and security forces. Nor was I surprised to see Amnesty International calling for countries that sell tear gas canisters to Turkey to suspend any further deliveries given the questionable ways in which they have been used.

While one certainly doesn’t seeks to, nor wishes to, impugn the entire police service of Turkey and its members one nonetheless fears that the prospect of a Turkish police state is one that is bound to make Turkey and its people much less safe than they presently are.

Turkey faces very real threats. And firm police action is sometimes necessary. So are counter-terrorism related measures, no doubt about that. However the sweeping legislation which has been proposed in recent months, and gone through in recent weeks, is very worrying and may give the police far too much authority to be an effective servant, not to mention guardian, of the Turkish state and its people – the latter of whom it is very important have faith and trust in the police, because if their faith is undermined so too is the ability of the police to effectively do what they’re supposed to do. And who do you think ultimately gains from a set-up like that?

A recently passed security law gives the Turkey’s police forces very broad authority when it comes to arbitrarily detaining people without a specified justification or pretext. It even gives them the authority to imprison any demonstrator who conceals his or her face for up to five years. A Kurdish human rights lawyer opposed to these measures told Al Monitor that the vague language of these new measures could legally enable the police to “detain a person in winter with his or her face covered with a scarf as protection against the cold.”

Turkey’s incumbent President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has dismissed such claims, as expected. This is the same Mr. Erodgan who resolutely condemned the July 2013 army coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and went as far as citing Turkey’s own authoritarian past in order to authoritatively warn Egypt that authoritarianism is never a good way to go. Regardless of the pretense — security, the necessity of combating terrorism, crime or whatever the threat happens to be — one cites for taking that road. Well, decreasing civilian oversight of state police and security forces and the rights of citizens under certain circumstances would certainly be a way of taking Turkey back in that direction. And that would certainly be a regression.

Recent events in Istanbul convince me that such measures will actually serve to hamper the Turkish states resolve to deal effectively with any terrorist threats leveled against it. Remember that court house hostage crisis in Istanbul last month which ended with the hostage and his takers dead? Those hostage-takers, members of a Maoist group, claimed they were acting on behalf of Berkin Elvan, a teenager who succumbed to injuries incurred during the aforementioned 2013 protests — he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police even though he wasn’t participating in any demonstrations — and died after a lengthy coma. The prosecutor which that group had taken hostage was working to get to the bottom of what exactly had happened to poor Elvan and who exactly was responsible for his death. His conclusion, had he lived to reach it, would unlikely have been favourable to those police in Istanbul on that dark day.

The hostage-takers failed to stoke a panic or any more violence. They also failed in what seemed to have been a concerted effort to emphasis the fact that poor Elvan was a member of the Alevi community (Alevi’s are a Sufi-like Shia Muslim minority community in Turkey) in order to, it seems, imply that he was killed because of his religious beliefs. An accusation likely made to try and stir-up sectarian tensions between the Turkish state and that minority community.

But what they actually done through that horrible act was deny that persecutor from getting to the bottom of Elvan’s case, and in doing so quite possibly terminated a process which may well have culminated in the police being taken to task through the court in a legal and civil manner.

Now just think for a minute if that horrible instance of terrorism was used to justify less civilian oversight over the police. If that happened wouldn’t groups like that rather misguided Maoist one would have, at least partially, achieved their desired outcome? Especially considering the fact they clearly sought to sow, potentially violent, discord and drive a wedge between the police and the people who they are supposed to serve. Such an outcome would certainly not have benefited the Turkish state and its people for obvious reasons. But it would have inevitably benefited those who seek to do harm to them. Talk about having the worst of both worlds!

Photo by Tomasz Iwaniec licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license