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Critics: Proposed Legislation Turns Turkey Into Police State

Turkish riot police fire tear gas to disperse pro-Kurdish protesters near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, Sept. 29, 2014.

Proposed legislation in Turkey would dramatically extend police powers in response to this month's protests by members of the country's Kurdish minority.

Critics have condemned the measure, saying Turkey is quickly becoming a police state. But the government insists the proposals are in line with European standards.

Among the proposed reforms is a measure allowing police to detain people without filing formal charges for 24 hours. The legislation also calls for increased controls on social media used in protests, harsher penalties for violent protesters and expanded power to search homes.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior researcher on Turkey at Human Rights Watch in New York, said the proposals represent a step backward for the country.

The legislation "shows that the government is going back to increasing police powers, which could be used to target government critics, oppositionists [and] people the police decide they don't like," she said.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the measures were needed in the wake of the nationwide Kurdish protests over the government’s refusal to help defend the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani against Islamic State militants. More than 40 people were killed in the protests.

"These reforms aim to protect private life, individual rights and freedoms. ... All measures will be in line with EU standards and based on universal standards," Davutoglu said.

Sinclair-Webb acknowledged that some of the proposals appeared to conform with international standards, but she said the police’s track record on using new powers gave cause for concern.

"When you look at the case law and when you look at the context in Turkey of when the police have widely abused this power, and have conducted very random searches of people they don't like, then you have to look at it in a different light," she said.

The government also is reintroducing a measure that would allow the closure of websites without a court order, with the shutdowns lasting three days or more pending a court review. The nation's constitutional court struck down a similar proposal earlier this year.

Nuray Mert, a political scientist at Istanbul University, said Turkey is heading in a worrisome direction.

"A few months ago, it was extending the powers of intelligence, and it was the sign of a turn to an intelligence state, considering Turkey’s record of liberties going down and down. Now, this is the last step," Mert said, adding that Turkey "becomes even more and more authoritarian every day with new bills passed."

The government dismisses such concerns, pointing to its proposal to create a parliamentary committee to monitor the new powers. But critics said this committee would support the government's positions.

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