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Erdoğan and Bahçeli are seen here at the opening ceremony of the renamed “Democracy Island”. The place was formerly known as Yassıada; Turkish politicians Adnan Menderes, Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, and Hasan Polatkan had been tried and executed there following the 1960 coup. (Photo: Presidency)

The demand for the reinstatement of the death penalty is too serious an issue to be called a diversion. And this time though, it hits the Turkish society on a particularly sensitive spot. Discussions of the death penalty are coming up just as an Islamist sect sheik got arrested on charges of sexually harassing the daughter of one of his disciples and reporting news about the incident got banned supposedly to avoşd a bad name about religious sects. The game plan is clearly laid out. It is to make those who oppose the death penalty look like they are defending rapists.

It’s common knowledge that Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli calls for the return of the death penalty on almost every occasion. His latest call for it was for crimes committed against the state after the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. This time, he brought it up in relation to sexual assault crimes, especially against children. But things took a turn when Mustafa Şentop, Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, supported Bahçeli’s call. Şentop is a known influencer both in politics and the judiciary and is now among Erdogan’s closest circle.

We’ve seen this a thousand times before. The matter will be brought to parliament for this purpose. Then the scope will be broadened to comprise “crimes against the state.” After that, the definition of “crime against the state” will further open up. Finally, it will be narrowed back regarding the sexual crimes, focusing it down so political crimes.

Death penalty: against international agreements

The death penalty is in accordance with Islamic Sharia law. But today, there is no place for it in international law or the Turkish legislative system. Its removal was the result of long-lasting democratic struggles. And it was President Tayyip Erdogan who put an end to it during his term as Prime Minister. The abolishment of the death penalty had been in the political agenda ever since 50 political executions had taken place during the military regime folloıwing the September 12, 1980 coup d’etat. But the discussion to remove the death penalty had warmed up after outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan’s arrest in 1999.

The elections that same year brought about a coalition of DSP (Democratic Left Party)-MHP-ANAP(Motherland Party). The death penalty to Öcalan then came before the government. This trilateral coalition, of which Bahçeli was the Deputy Prime Minister, postponed Öcalan’s death sentence until the next European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings. It was this same coalition that lifted the death penalty with the exception of “war and the threat of imminent war” while going to early elections in 2002. Bahçeli was part of it too. The death penalty was abolished with no exceptions in 2003 during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) also supported it.

According to experts, the United Nations protocol’s 2nd clause does not permit the withdrawal of signature on the abolishment of capital punishment. And according to the European Convention on Human Rights, there can be no exceptions. Should Turkey withdraw its signature, it could be taken out of the European Commission, let alone remaining an EU candidate. 

The sects issue

These days, a 2014 statement by Bülent Arınç, one of the three pillars in the AKP establishment, has resurfaced on social media. He was telling the religious sects that; “if we exist, you exist too, and if we don’t, you don’t either.”

In fact, Arınç was telling the truth. The Uşşaki sect’s sheik, who changed his name from Eyüp Fatih Şağban to Fatih Nurullah (Light of God), and is qualified as a “fraudster” by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, was roughly saying the same. Only a few days ago the sheik had advised his disciples to forego the beard and turban and get into the government offices. That’s why, his disciples were expected not to challenge Erdoğan, or bar his way until an Islamic regime in Turkey. Obviously, he wanted a share of the civil service competition between the sects by blackmailing Erdogan with votes.

The sects today are bold enough to oppose Erdoğan. Actions like demanding to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence are proof. They’ve started to blackmail him. And one of the reasons for this is the discomfort caused by the monetary stress and sudden lack of financial and other benefits following AKP’s loss of metropolitan municipalities.

A double-edged sword

Because the sects know that Arınç’s words were a double-edged sword that could well cut into the flesh of AKP. “If we do not exist,” they say, “then AKP doesn’t exist either”. However, Bahçeli’s reaction, too, is like a double-edged sword. When we read between the lines of his statements, we can clearly see that Bahçeli, as Erdoğan’s political partner, has been annoyed with him being blackmailed by sects. Even if he does not openly say it.

Of course, Bahçeli is aware that there is discomfort in the MHP base. From the demand to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention to insulting Atatürk and the Republic during the 30 August debates, many new developments were not well received. It’s also bothersome to the nationalist cadres that had gained momentum in the governmental ranks after Gülenists had been purged, that the Judiciary and Police have now turned into a competition ground between a few religious sects. 

Such is the context in which the death penalty came up once again. 

Therefore, we must continue to write about rapes, to stand against gender-based violence and inequality, and to defend the right to life and justice, regardless of slanders.