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Turkey to Consider Return of Capital Punishment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of Muslim religious leaders from Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 19. 2012.
The Turkish Prime Minister has put the return of capital punishment up for consideration, claiming there is widespread support in the country for it especially in cases of terrorism. Turkey is experiencing a resurgence in fighting by the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, whose leader is incarcerated in a Turkish prison.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a series of speeches over the last few weeks, has pushed the idea of bringing back the death penalty.

He said in the face of deaths and murders, the death penalty should,if necessary, be brought back to the table for discussion. Erdogan made the comments at a rally of party supporters earlier this month.

Turkey formally abolished the death penalty in 2004, although the last execution took place in 1984 during military rule. The prime minister’s statement comes amid a resurgence in fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK.

Cengiz Aktar is a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman.

"He probably intends (to address) the families who are losing their children in the combat on the Turkish army side. Of course he is (in) total contradiction (of) what he said in 2001, when he was in opposition and the party was fresh and there he was clearly for the abolition of the death penalty. After ten years he has regressed completely," Aktar said.

A main factor behind the change in the stance of the prime minister is the 2014 presidential election, according to political scientist Yuksel Taskin of Istanbul’s Marmara University.

"The most important thing is to capture (the) presidential post and turn the system into a presidential system or semi-presidential system; he needs nationalist votes according to his calculations," Taskin said.

Erdogan needs the support of the Nationalist Action Party to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the country’s constitution to introduce a presidential system. And the nationalist party has been in the forefront of demanding the return of the death penalty and, in particular, the execution of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Ocalan was sentenced to death but it was commuted to life in prison after capital punishment was abolished. On the streets of Istanbul there are mixed feelings about the prime minister’s call for the return of the death penalty.

"I support the prime minister, I think he is right," one woman said. "It would be better if we had it." (death penalty).

But another man thinks Turkey should look to Europe as a way forward.

"Its not something useful, in the Western countries what they do, we can do the same thing in Turkey as well," he said.

Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its bid to join the European Union. European politicians have already warned Ankara not to even consider its re-introduction. But with Ankara’s membership bid all but frozen, the international community has little influence, warns columnist Cengiz Aktar.

"The prime minister is ready to take every single foreign challenge and disregard them for the sake of his presidency and he does not care less of anything. And the European leverage does not exist anymore and the Americans are considering Turkey and its government as the best of the worst in the region. Therefore he feels he has a blank check from the entire world," Aktar said.

For now the prime minister’s call for the return of the death penalty is being treated by much of the Turkish media as largely political rhetoric. But observers point out any further escalation in fighting by the Kurdish rebels in the environment of a presidential election and with few checks on the prime minister’s power makes Turkey a country whose actions are increasingly difficult to predict.