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Can Turkey actually bring back the death penalty?

Can Turkey actually bring back the death penalty?

18.11.2016. Turkey.

We shall bring back the death penalty” – President Erdogan pledged. The thing is, the AKP Party does not hold a sufficient majority to do this…

After the deliberations, the President of the tribunal comes back and sits down. The assembly is holding their breath. The judge then takes a pencil and conspicuously breaks it in half. The accused then knows he has been sentenced to death. The scene is chilling. The sharp snap of the pencil being broken by the judge, the metaphor of a life about to be snapped.

The last time this happened was in 1984. Is this going to happen again in Turkish law courts?

We shall bring back the death penalty”: such is President Erdogan’s promise. In Ankara, in Bursa, elsewhere too in many Central Anatolia towns, crowds are demanding “death” for the gülenist “terrorists” (accused of 15th July failed coup), as well as for the Kurdish ones of the PKK, responsible for many terror attacks.

Once the gallows are set up again, this will be the end of Turkey’s ticket to Europe. It looks like President Erdogan cannot be bothered.

Standing alone on stage, in front of thousands of supporters, the Turkish President is making a pledge: “Since the people wants to bring back the death penalty, if the Parliament votes for it, I will ratify it. A green paper supporting it, is being drafted and could be submitted very soon by the government to the MPs”.

European officials are outraged, choking with indignation, threatening retaliation: once the gallows are set up again, this will be the end of Turkey’s ticket to Europe. It looks like President Erdogan cannot be bothered.

Yet, in the days when he was still Prime Minister, Erdogan took the initiative to generalize the abolition of the death penalty in the wake of the huge wave of measures of liberalization adopted in 2002 and after, while his government (Islamist-conservative Justice and Development Party AKP) actively engaged with the European Union membership process.

A gruelling process

Just as is the case in France, the abolition of the death penalty is enshrined in the Turkish Constitution. Like Robert Badinter, the French Minister of Justice who, in 1981, made sure this abolition would be irreversible and safe from any swing in parliamentary majority, in 2004, Turkish lawyers proposed to accede to the abolitionist protocols of big international treaties: the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and most importantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

This is why re-introducing the death penalty in Turkey today would be hindered by a series of major obstacles.

First of all, it would require an amendment of the Constitution. But the AKP Party did not get a strong enough majority to be able to go about it on its own. What’s more, neither the social democrat Republican Peoples’ Party CHP, nor the left-wing pro Kurdish autonomy Peoples’ Democratic Party HDP, support the idea. The government would then end up with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party MHP, a keen advocate of the death penalty, as its only support though this would not be enough to avoid resorting to a referendum.

It is impossible to recede from the duties attached to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) without denouncing the very Convention itself, which is considered as the “European Bible for Human Rights”

As to pulling out from international commitments, it must be said that this is almost unthinkable. According to lawyers, it is impossible to recede from the duties attached to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) without denouncing the very Convention itself, which is considered as the “European Bible for Human Rights”. If that were to be the case, Turkey might be likely to incur exclusion from the Council of Europe.

However, it is impossible to withdraw from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The commitment is irreversible. Turkey would be left with no option but violate its international commitments, a development that might even end up being censored by the Turkish Constitutional Court if it ever were to recover its independence…

What’s more, if Turkey were to take all these steps successfully, it would end up alone in a unique situation in Europe, along with Byelorussia…

Is this a serious decision?

In the end: “Much ado about nothing”, as the retrospective delivery of the death penalty to the 15th July coup plotters would be impossible to implement, unless the country decides to renege on all its principles. Well aware of these difficulties, the Turkish President, and even more so, his Prime Minister, explain that the return of the death penalty would be implemented only in a “limited way”: does that mean only in times of war, as was the case when Erdogan got into power? Or only for acts of terrorism? Or just for the 15th July coup plotters?

Thus many observers are questioning the seriousness of such a decision, which seems in fact to be more a matter of psychological action than an actual changeover.

Even though the Turkish authorities overplay their self-confidence and consider European threats to be marginal, the price for such a decision could be heavy: it would call the end of any prospect of EU membership, which, as it stands now, is already deeply jeopardized. It would finalize a break away from all European values and probably EU institutions as well, and more seriously maybe, it would bring about an economic rift, even international sanctions for breach of law. Turkish authorities are well aware of this.

Thus many observers are questioning the seriousness of such a decision, which seems in fact to be more a matter of psychological action than an actual changeover. Could this “scarecrow” vision be meant to a far greater extent to entice its new ally, the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party MHP, or to pressure its main opposition, the Republican People’s Party CHP, in order to get its support for the establishment of a presidential regime, something that is of far greater importance to President Erdogan? With a core deal like “I remove the death penalty and you support my presidential regime”? Or in the end, is it because it actually costs nothing to announce a measure that feeds the Western countries’ finger pointing rhetoric that RT Erdogan enjoys challenging?

In Turkish society, such a tidal wave cannot be excluded

Cheap populism

However, it would be careless to dismiss the restoration of the death penalty as simply impossible. The Turkish society is currently going through difficult times, both in internal matters and international ones. Such a tidal wave cannot be excluded, particularly if Turkey were to be isolated and ostracised. When they are waving a red flag, European officials may have found a way to get rid of their Turkish headache whithout having to take the initiative for the break. If Erdogan and his people were  to vote for the death penalty, the negociation process would stop and the responsibility would be theirs.

Because, as former Turkish judge Riza Turmen said to the ECHR, this story might end up looking “at the end of the day, like nothing but cheap populism”. For President Erdogan, there is the essential, which is a presidential regime, and the incidental – the death penalty.

Ariane Bonzon

Translation: Laurence Mazure

Photo : DR

Original version:  Rétablir la peine de mort en Turquie? Compliqué, très compliqué, en vérité

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