Turkey’s parliament passed a controversial new security law Friday that will centralize and expand police powers, amid widespread concern it will be used to crack down on political dissent. The measure's approval comes ahead of June's general election and follows the passage of another law this week extending controls over the Internet.
The highly contentious security law was passed despite bitter resistance from all of the country's parliamentary opposition parties. Turkey’s Western allies and human rights groups have also voiced concern over the new measure.
Emma Sinclair Webb, senior researcher on Turkey for New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the new law is deeply worrying.
"The law will basically allow ... the police greater power of detention of people in advance of demonstrations, and also to use more firearms against people; it has been increased by this law. That's obviously a matter of great concern and suggests a willingness of the government to arm itself with greater powers in the run-up to a general election," says Sinclair Webb.
The ruling AK Party rushed through the new law in the early hours of Friday morning, just days before parliament recesses for June’s general election.
But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says the law is being introduced to prevent a repeat of last October’s nationwide Kurdish anti-government protests, during which over 50 people died.
Selahattin Demirtas, who heads Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, strongly condemned the legislation, warning it would undermine the current peace process between the government and the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.
The government initially withdrew the legislation for further consideration, but its decision to reintroduce it is a blow to peace efforts, says Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University.
“This law is antagonistic not only with the democracy, (but) with the ongoing peace process - which is not a peace process, it's just a cease-fire. But in order to transform the cease-fire into peace-building, we certainly don't need this law," says Sah.
One of most controversial aspects of the law allows police to use fatal force against any protester who throws a Molotov cocktail or uses similar weapons. Human rights groups say such vague language could open the door to the indiscriminate use of firearms.
The law allows police to detain protesters without charge for 48 hours. Demonstrators also face years in jail if they cover their faces, even if it is to protect themselves against the effects of tear gas.
The government argues the new law is in full compliance with European Union standards, but Sinclair Webb of Human Rights Watch disputes that.
“The government argues that these kind of powers are the same powers that you have in EU countries, but that it is just not the case. And EU countries do not have Turkey's record of abusive policing,” says Sinclair Webb.
The new law's passage is likely to increase concern among Turkey’s Western allies. According to human rights groups, the past year has seen a marked increase in the detention and prosecution of people using social media to criticize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A law was passed earlier this month that extends government control over the Internet, allowing ministers to close Web sites within hours without a court order.
Political scientist Aktar says the new laws are signs of a worrying trend.
“The Turkish government has been busy reversing the EU-inspired democratic reformist path, together with the new Internet restrictions, which will curtail the freedom of expression, the freedom of demonstration and freedom of press,” say Aktar.
Observers warn such restrictions are likely to deepen Turkey's political polarization, and opinion polls suggest that in the June general election, the ruling AK Party could face the first real challenge to its power in more than a decade.