Observers see statements on restoring capital punishment as a political move by Turkey’s leadership and not a serious effort to impose executions.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a public debate on reinstating the death penalty recently, few people took it as a sign he plans to bring the practice back.
But his statements have caused a pitched debate, prompting some commentators to warn that his remarks could harm democracy and efforts to complete EU integration, regardless of his intentions.
“Such remarks are harmful, of course,” veteran journalist and political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told SES Türkiye. “It is fueling the public opinion about the death penalty. People will say: ‘See, even the prime minister says we should have the death penalty back.’ This is uncalled for, and wrong.”
In a November 12th speech, Erdogan said “in the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table for discussion,” according to media reports.
His remarks came as Turkey’s public debate was focused on the Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strike, which has since stopped. The strikers were demanding an end to the isolation of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and free use of Kurdish in the education and courts systems.
The timing of the comments gave analysts reason to believe they were connected to the hunger strikes and Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence since the death penalty in peacetime was abolished in 2002.
Birand said Erdogan was only “flirting with ultra-nationalists” when he made his remarks.
“He gave them what they wanted to hear, but he knows it’s impossible to bring the death penalty back, so he also didn’t insist,” Birand said. “Of course [Erdogan] was also distracting the attention away from the hunger strike in prisons.”
Birand added that it would be legally impossible to execute Ocalan even if the death penalty were reinstated, and that Turkey abolished the practice out of concern for what would happen if the PKK leader were put to death in the first place.
“The death penalty wasn’t abolished because of the European Union, as people may think. It was out of fear for our security,” Birand said. “The Kurds were going to really shed blood if Ocalan were brought to death. There would be a leadership war within the PKK, which would cause even more blood. It would have led to a catastrophe.”
Amidst the discussion that followed the prime minister’s comments, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule indicated that bringing back capital punishment would harm Turkey’s EU prospects.
“Global abolition of the death penalty was one of the main objectives of the EU’s human rights policy,” he told reporters. “Therefore, when the [EU] monitors compliance by candidate and potential candidate countries with the political criteria, it looks at the legal provisions on the death penalty.”
AKP ministers, meanwhile, moved to downplay the controversy.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, for example, was quoted on the party’s website as saying “there’s currently no effort at our ministry to bring back capital punishment.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutloglu also reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to EU membership.
On separate occasions, Erdogan voiced for support for the country’s death penalty ban, both before and after it was implemented.
Pinar Ilkiz, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International’s branch in Turkey, told SES Türkiye the human rights organisation does not anticipate the government will take steps to reinstate the death penalty.
“Since the government hasn’t prepared anything, we’ll leave it at this,” she said.