ANKARA - Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unveiled a tightening of security legislation on Tuesday following deadly protests this month, amid growing fears that the government is using the unrest to tighten its grip on power.
Around 40 people were killed in violence that swept southeast Turkey after Kurdish protesters took to the streets to express their fury over the fate of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, besieged by Islamic State militants for a month.
Sparked by anger at Ankara's failure to intervene militarily to help Kobani, the unrest revived bitter memories of the street violence that has punctuated a three decades long insurgency by Kurdish militants against Turkish authorities. It also recalled massive anti-government protests that rocked Turkey last year.
“If there are people who want to revive these events, the state and the nation has the power to put them in their place,” Davutoglu told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AK Party.
“When you take a Molotov cocktail in your hand, the right to assembly and protest ends and an act of violence begins. Any act which turns to violence will be considered a crime.”
Under legislation that will presented to parliament soon, those involved in violent protests will face longer jail sentences and those protesting with their faces covered would be viewed as “potential criminals.”
Police will be given the authority to keep suspects under detention for 24 hours, whereas a prosecutor's consent is required under existing legislation. A prosecutor will be able to extend the detention by 48 hours.
Government officials have insisted the changes are necessary to maintain order, with Davutoglu saying the new law is in line with European Union standards.
But critics argue the country is heading towards becoming a police state, pointing to a raft of legislation since last year which has tightened government control of the security forces, the judiciary and the internet.
In recent years, Turkey's western partners have expressed alarm at apparent signs of creeping authoritarianism in Ankara, while President Tayyip Erdogan's international standing has been tarnished by police brutality towards anti-government protesters and high profile bans of Twitter and YouTube.
“The AKP wants to turn Turkey into an open prison,” the main opposition CHP party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told his party's parliamentary group meeting in criticism of the reform package.
Alarm over authoritarianism
In another move, a parliamentary commission would have to be informed of any wire-tap operations, which were widely used by police in a corruption investigation last year centered on Erodgan's inner circle.
The government responded furiously to the probe, calling it an “attempted judicial coup” and purging thousands of police officers from their posts for allegedly being part of a “parallel structure” bent on toppling the government.
“On one hand, these reforms are made to strengthen human rights and freedoms, and to protect the privacy of life,” Davutoglu said of the wide-ranging package.
“On the other hand, it includes measures to be taken against those who damage an environment of trust in matters from e-commerce to labor security, from war against drugs to struggle against terror,” he added.
The government's growing intolerance of criticism, which has seen it strengthen control of media, the judiciary and the police, is undermining democracy, according to Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at Suleyman Shah University.
Previous such laws had been labeled “democratization” packages or “legal packages,” but now the increasingly confident government is happy to label the latest change a “security package” according to Aktar.
“In Turkey there are no more checks and balances which would tell the normal citizens that this is a country that is ruled by the law,” he added.
Earlier this month the EU released a report warning Turkey not to erode judicial independence and rule of law.
The new proposals are just the latest step in Ankara's efforts to crack down on civil liberties, according to Marietje Schaake, a liberal Dutch European MP.
Muted criticism of the new proposals inside Turkey proved that previous measures were already silencing dissenters, Schaake said, adding that the government's growing authoritarianism was a “race to the bottom which has to stop.”
Meanwhile, western partners are increasingly disenchanted by the Turkish government and distracted by regional issues, including the fight against IS, Schaake believes.
NATO-member Turkey's refusal to intervene in the fight with militant group IS, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, has frustrated the United States. The Turkish authorities view those defending Kobani with deep suspicion because of their links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
“Politically speaking, within the EU a lot of people are tired of this Turkey issue ... I'm deeply worried about Turkey but at the same time we shouldn't give up on it, and I do see a risk of that,” Schaake said.