Reinstating the death penalty: The mother of all mistakes
President Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks on Oct. 29, in which he said reinstating the death penalty could be on parliament’s agenda “soon,” rekindled debates about the quality of democracy in Turkey and also put the country’s position in further jeopardy vis-a-vis European institutions.
Bringing back the death penalty was back on Turkey’s political agenda as early as the night of the bloody coup attempt of July 15, voiced by those who rushed to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport to welcome President Erdoğan.
He had managed to get his voice heard by the people by connecting to CNN Türk via Facetime, after which he flew to Istanbul from Marmaris, where he had been having a family holiday when news of the coup attempt broke.
When Erdoğan slammed the network of his former ally, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, for being behind the coup attempt, the crowd started to chant: “We want the death penalty.”
Capital punishment was abolished by Turkey on July 14, 2004 as a part of reforms to harmonize Turkish legislation with the European Union. The move was initiated by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government and supported by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
But there was a story behind that move. Death sentences in Turkey were handed out extensively after the military coup on Sept. 12, 1980, with 50 ultimately carried out on charges of terrorism. However, it was stopped in practice in 1984. From the 1990s there were campaigns inside and outside Turkey by NGOs to completely abolish capital punishment. Its inclusion onto the political agenda only came after the arrest of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, outside the Greek Embassy in Kenya on Feb 15, 1999, in a joint operation of Turkish and American intelligence services MİT and CIA.
It has still never been revealed whether not executing Öcalan was a precondition of the cooperation put forward by the Bill Clinton administration in the U.S. After all, the charges against Öcalan were more than enough to warrant the death penalty. Then-Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s three-party coalition - including the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and its leader Devlet Bahçeli – then issued a memorandum to not implement the death penalty given by the court until a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In the meantime, Turkey’s membership application from 1987 was acknowledged as eligible by the European Commission in its Helsinki Summit on Dec. 10, 1999.
Eventually, the death penalty was abolished first for crimes committed outside times of war and terrorism in 2001. Then it was further limited to cases of close and immediate threat in 2002. It was completely abolished in 2004.
Ironically, 1999 was also the year when Gülen left Turkey to settle at a ranch in Pennsylvania. Back in 2014, when Gülen was no longer considered an ally but rather the head of a terrorist gang, Erdoğan speculated whether a “superior mind” had “given Öcalan and taken Gülen.” He again referred to that alleged “exchange” shortly after the coup attempt at a press gathering on Aug. 6.
Now, Erdoğan is again clear in his stance that he would approve a reintroduction of capital punishment if it is passed by parliament. A few hours after he spoke, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in a TV interview on Oct. 29 that he would look for support from other parties in parliament for such a move. Lawyers claim that the death penalty could be included as part of the constitutional draft for a shift to the presidential system, taken to a referendum with the support of the MHP.
Perhaps this rhetoric is only a tactic by Erdoğan to attract nationalist votes in order to guarantee victory in a possible presidential referendum. Even so, it would be a bad mistake for Turkey. Not only would it add to the current tension, which is already high due to the rise in terrorist attacks and the neighboring wars in Syria and Iraq, it would also further distance Turkey from the democratic world.
It is true that the death penalty is still on the books in some advanced post-industrial countries like the U.S. and Japan. But there is no country within the EU that still has the death penalty, as it is one of the basic points in the EU’s Copenhagen criteria for membership. In the Council of Europe, Belarus is the only country that still has the death penalty in its legislation, with Kazakhstan limited to times of war.
Some of the countries that have carried out capital punishments in 2015 are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt (which Erdoğan despises), and (shamefully) the U.S.
So bringing back the death penalty is certainly not a good idea for Turkey. It will be a further big mistake to downgrade the quality of democracy in Turkey, which is already suffering problems.