Bringing back the death penalty is not a good idea

Bringing back the death penalty is not a good idea

To be frank, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has never truly been an opponent to abolishing the capital punishment from Turkish legislation. It is true that the death penalty was abolished in 2004 during the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) rule when he was prime minister. But that came with the completion of a legal process which had started in 1999 after the arrested leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, was sentenced to death by a Turkish court. Thanks to a step taken by former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, Turkey was accepted as an eligible candidate to join the European Union in a summit in December 1999 in Helsinki. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was a coalition partner and deputy prime minister to Ecevit at the time. And thanks to a step taken by Erdoğan in 2004 the EU had agreed to start membership negotiations, together with a series of constitutional amendments (nine of them) and major changes in laws (like criminal and civil codes) in 2003-2004. That was made possible with the cooperation of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in parliament. There is no death penalty in any EU member country as it is one of the 1993 Copenhagen political criteria.

That may seem ages ago now, because Turkey’s relations with the EU have been in decline since 2007 and AK Parti’s relations with the CHP is in a worse shape.

But even then, Erdoğan would say that he was not for the abolishment of the death penalty. When asked by reporters in 2002, he had said that he would give support to abolishing only on condition that the alternative must not be less than aggravated life sentence and should be without amnesty. In 2012 again, even when indirect dialogue with the PKK had started in pursuit of a solution to the Kurdish problem, Erdoğan did not hesitate to say he saw no reason in not bringing back the death penalty, giving examples from the U.S. (which partly has it) and Japan. But for years, Bahçeli and the MHP were the only outspoken sides voicing their support for the reinstitution of the capital punishment.

That changed on the night of the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. When Erdoğan arrived at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, in a symbolic move showing he was retaking control, there were MHP sympathizers among the crowd gathered there to greet him, many of whom demanded they wanted the death penalty back. He agreed with the demands. In an interview Erdoğan had with CNN International only three days later, on July 18, he said that if parliament votes for reinstating the death penalty, he would immediately sign it. That is exactly what Erdoğan repeated on Aug. 1 this year.

The MHP is already for it. Bahçeli keeps reiterating that if it comes to parliament they would give full support to bring it back. İYİ (Good) Party, led by Meral Akşener, is likely to give support as well. Mustafa Destici, the leader of the Islamist/nationalist Greater Unity Party (BBP), who entered parliament on the AK Parti ticket, said on Aug. 5 that as soon as parliament opens in October, his party would submit a proposal to reinstate capital punishment.

When asked during a live interview on private broadcaster NTV on Aug. 6, AK Parti deputy chair Hayati Yazıcı said the following:

  • * “The death penalty is an issue with many dimensions. We respect and agree what AK Parti chair and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on this issue. AK Parti doesn’t have the parliamentary majority to vote for the reinstitution of the death penalty. Even for a referendum we need 360 votes. 
  • * “We can discuss all those, but we are a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention protocol. There is also the Political Rights Convention of the United Nations. All of those should be taken into consideration. But of course the legislation is native and national… If there are such demands from society, politics cannot remain indifferent to those demands.
  • * “They [BPP] cannot do such thing. After all you need a certain number of signatures to bring a constitutional amendment demand to parliament. I have no idea why he said something like that.” And when asked whether the AK Parti would talk to the CHP on the death penalty, he said: “We don’t have such an issue for the time being. If it comes to the agenda, it could be discussed with all parties.”

As can be observed, the AK Parti chair is very careful, for Turkey has its signature under international commitments, but he is also careful not to contradict with Erdoğan. We do not know if he will keep his stance in the Aug. 18 congress.

Leaving aside all the humanitarian aspects of the death penalty, which means that there’s no chance of correcting a fatal mistake, the reinstitution of it in Turkish legislation is likely to deliver a major blow to relations with the EU with all its political and economic dimensions. It doesn’t seem to be a very good idea.

Murat Yetkin,