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Death penalty in Turkey would ‘spell the end of EU membership bid’

AFP | Undated archival image shows Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has angered European institutions and sparked fear among NGOs by claiming the death penalty could be restored in Turkey following a failed military coup to oust him from power.


A massive crack down on suspected coup plotters and participants among the branches of Turkey’s military was still underway on Tuesday, fuelling concerns over the respect of human rights amid the political chaos.

In response to demonstrators who chanted “Death Penalty, Death Penalty!” during recent pro-government rallies, Erdogan has promised the demand would be considered in the wake of the short-lived revolt.

Turkish lawmakers abolished the death penalty in a two-fold process between 2002 and 2004 as part of the country’s bid to join the European Union, but calls for reinstating capital punishment have surged on social networks in recent days. The hashtag #Idamistiyorum, or “I want the death penalty”, has been shared tens of thousands of times.

Erdogan, who has previously evoked the possibility of bringing back the death penalty, brandished the threat again during a funeral service for some victims of the coup on Sunday.

“You cannot push the wish of the people to one side,” Erdogan said in reference to calls for the death penalty, while referring to supporters of his rival, the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen as a “virus” that had to be cleaned from the state.

Almost 20,000 members of the army, police, civil service and justice system
– a fifth of the country’s entire judiciary, according to some estimates – have been detained in a purge that started over the weekend.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also raised the possibility over the weekend, but tempered his remarks on Monday. “It would not be correct to act in haste but we cannot ignore our citizens' demand,” Yildirim said in comments following a cabinet meeting, noting that re-establishing the death penalty would require a constitutional change.

European scowl

Samim Akgönül, a professor at Strasbourg University and an expert on Turkey, said Erdogan and Yildirim’s threat should be taken seriously. “The president and prime minister are very interested in getting rid of the coup plotters by reinstating the death penalty, under the cover of meeting voters’ demands.”

And indeed, European leaders appeared to take umbrage. “Let me be very clear,” the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said on Monday. “No country can join the European Union if it introduced the death penalty”.

It was a statement that was later echoed by German officials. “Germany and the EU have a clear position: we reject the death penalty categorically,” said government spokesman Steffen Seibert. “The introduction of the death penalty in Turkey would spell the end of membership negotiations to the European Union.”

Turkey’s EU membership bid has made little headway amid fears of immigration across Europe and differences on how to deal with the Islamic State (IS) group, but the country is a member of the Council of Europe.

Akgönül said membership in that organisation would be in jeopardy if Turkey reinstated the death penalty, since any member of the Council of Europe is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, which rejects the death penalty.

NGOs ‘very worried’

For non-governmental organisations fighting for the abolition of the death penalty, Erdogan’s statement set off alarm bells.

Anne Denis, head of Amnesty International France’s campaign, told FRANCE 24 her group was “monitoring the situation very closely”. Especially since Erdogan “has the means to force parliament, where his supporters have a majority, to call a vote on restoring the death penalty”.

The London-based NGO Reprieve shared a similar view. “The statements by the Turkish president are extremely worrying,” said Maya Foa, who directs the group’s death penalty division. “The reintroduction of capital punishment will not bring more justice in Turkey, quite the opposite actually.”

Asked to what extent Erdogan’s threats were to be taken seriously, given his penchant for populist rhetoric, Foa said Western governments should not wait to find out.

“It’s still unclear if the Turkish president’s proposals are serious or mere words. But it is crucial that European countries and others with close relations with Turkey intervene swiftly before this suggestion goes any further,” she insisted.

Foa believes that it is in Turkey’s best interest to also “remain consistent” on this issue, recalling that during a UN summit earlier this year Turkey publicly reaffirmed its clear opposition to the death penalty “under all circumstances”.

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