Protests force Turkish gov’t to revise child abuse draft

Protests force Turkish gov’t to revise child abuse draft

A midnight draft by six ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) MPs upended Turkey’s already hectic political agenda after Nov. 18.

The draft recommended a change to Article 103 of the Penal Code regarding penalties for the sexual abuse of children, (ie. those under the age of 15). It followed a Constitutional Court ruling on July 13 this year, which said that if the government did not make corrective changes in the penal code within six months (expiring on Jan. 13, 2017), convicts currently in jail for child abuse could be set free. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ vowed that a correction would be made to introduce gradually heavier penalties as the age of the child victim got younger. That soothed the reactions from society and a parliamentary commission was set up to find the right wording.

But the midnight draft suggested something beyond the reconciliation reached by the parties in parliament. If it had passed, all those currently in jail for child abuse would have been freed “for one time,” meaning that it would not be applicable in future. 

When Bozdağ defended the case in parliament, he said there are some who have suffered because of “early marriages.” He added that the proposal aimed to save young grooms who have married under the legal age from jail, saying provincial governors and even MPs had taken part in celebrations of some of those weddings.

Angry reactions against the motion grew further after his words. Opposition MPs said that instead of prosecuting public officials who ignored such marriages’ illegality, Bozdağ was praising underage marriages. They said such a proposal would open the way to rape-weddings, in which a rapist could be left free if he agreed to marry his young victim. Others noted that nobody asks the girl in remote rural areas whether she wants to marry her rapist.

Upon fierce reactions in parliament, mostly by the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), voting on the draft was postponed to Nov. 22.

It was not only the CHP deputies who were reacting. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also expressed outrage. The MHP also had another particular reason to react negatively. During recent talks on constitutional amendments, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli that they would be consulting his party on legal changes. But the draft came as a bad surprise for the MHP too. Bahçeli was so angry that he postponed the first constitutional draft review with the AK Parti, which was supposed to take place on Nov. 18.

There were also reactions from within the AK Parti, particularly from women MPs. Many Whatsapp groups started to hum and, toward the end of the day, the government-friendly Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) issued a protest asking Ankara to review the draft, which it said could open the way for more abuse of children.

KADEM’s statement was actually almost the same as reactions from other NGOs, though in a milder tone. But it turned out to be the most important one. The head of KADEM is an academic, Sare Aydın Yılmaz, and her deputy is Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, the daughter of President Tayyip Erdoğan. KADEM has been perceived by other women’s associations as a kind of backyard of the AK Parti, so it is remarkable that it also reacted against the draft motion.

Following the KADEM statement, the Justice Ministry issued its own written statement defending the draft once again and vowing that there would be no step back because of “political speculation” from the opposition. But at almost the same time, Prime Minister Yıldırım was having a meeting with Nurettin Canikli, the deputy prime minister in charge of relations with parliament. In the meantime he also had a telephone conversation with Erdoğan.

There were a number of questions: The prime minister had urged ministers during the cabinet meeting on Nov. 14 not to introduce a draft on the issue without consulting the opposition parties. Why was no consultation made? Why did they bring the issue to the agenda in the middle of the night, when President Erdoğan had left the country (for official visits to Pakistan and Uzbekistan), causing the impression that they were involved in a fait accompli?

Two hours after Justice Minister Bozdağ’s statement that there would be no backpedaling, Yıldırım’s office told the press that the draft would be taken to the opposition parties and revised if necessary.

Yıldırım also asked Bozdağ to have meetings with KADEM and the Turkish Businesswomen Association (TİKAD), another group considered in line with the AK Parti’s policies. The prime minister himself is expected to have a meeting with women MPs and AK Parti executives on Nov. 21.

It seems that the necessary change in the penal code will be made, as the Constitutional Court requested. It may include an attempt to address early marriages that do not involve violence or abuse. But if it includes anything more than that, suggesting the legitimization of child abuse or forced marriages, there are likely to be more protests and reactions from Turkish society.