Looking for ‘worst European practice’ in rights

Looking for ‘worst European practice’ in rights

According to Volkan Bozkır, Turkey’s Minister for European Union Affairs, Ankara has adopted a new communications strategy, in order to win the hearts and minds of European citizens and EU governments.

In a press conference in Brussels, Bozkır said the aim was to boost Turkey’s image in Europe. For decades, Turkish governments have not given up the idea of boosting the country’s “image” rather than boosting democratic rights.

Bozkır’s statement about achieving a more popular image among European citizens faces a real challenge nowadays. This is the case for two main reasons above the usual difficulties between Turkey and the EU, such as over Cyprus.

The first is about Turkey’s position in a bigger-scale crisis: The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) along Turkey’s southern borders with Iraq and Syria.

The other is about individual rights and freedoms in Turkey. A draft "security bill" submitted to Parliament by the government is currently under fire from opposition parties and a number of nongovernmental organizations, which accuse it of rolling back some achievements brought during the EU harmonization reforms a decade ago.

Meanwhile, call it a Freudian slip or not, but the words of Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş in defense of recent judicial adjustments, when he said the government was “not looking for a police state,” say something about the concerns. Originally, these reforms looked like a positive attempt to enhance the financial and social rights of judges and prosecutors.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government has recently gone through a tense period with the judiciary, believing that the system was about to be taken over by Gülenists and looking for ways to win their hearts, if not their minds. (Fethullah Gülen is a U.S.-based Islamic scholar who was a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Parti but who became an archrival after a major corruption probe in late 2013, which the government perceived as a “coup attempt.”)

Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are keen and impatient to “root out” Gülenists not only from government agencies like the police and the Finance Ministry, which they call a “parallel structure,” but also in private areas like the media, education and the banking system. They see this as a matter of national security.

Another matter of national security for the government is the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite the peace talks that have been ongoing for the last two years with its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, via the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).

The ISIL attacks on a Kurdish populated Syrian town near the Turkish border, Kobane (or Ayn al-Arab), triggered violent protests in Turkey, causing the deaths of more than 30 people in three days. The government was only able to stop them by asking Öcalan to issue a message, which he did.

But when PKK militants reportedly opened fire on police officers in the eastern city of Bingöl, killing two and wounding one, and when the police could not get a search warrant from local prosecutors – government sources claim they were Gülenists – Erdoğan became very upset. Even before Davutoğlu spoke, Erdoğan announced in public that there would be new measures empowering the police force.

The result was a draft bill presented on the pretext of struggling more efficiently against both the “parallels," (i.e. the Gülenists), and the PKK.

Davutoğlu assured people that it would not include any measure that did not have a place in EU countries’ legislation, giving the example of the German police’s powers.

However, the government also wants to bring back the criteria of mere “suspicion,” rather than having evidence, in order to legally tap telephones, read e-mails, or the bank accounts of citizens. The necessity that targets be allegedly linked to terrorist action is not in the draft either. Simply being involved in “anti-government activities” could be reason enough for police action, which could even go as far as confiscating private assets.

Indeed, the government was very careful in finding the “worst practice” in European police measures, without caring much for the “best practice” in rights, as it should be.

There are reports that the Justice Ministry is trying to come up with a series of “corrections” to the bill in order not to further worsen Turkey’s image. It better do so, not only for the country's image but first and foremost for the wellbeing of Turkish citizens.