Will Erdoğan’s empowered nightwatchmen become his personal police force?

Turkey’s nightwatchmen, also known as neighbourhood guards, are expanding their powers through a draft bill presented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), prompting concerns and criticism from opposition politicians and human rights advocates, the Guardian said on Monday.

The watchmen, once regarded with affection and respect by many Turks, had patrolled the country’s markets and neighbourhoods for decades armed with batons and whistles. That is until the AKP abolished the organisation in 2008.

Now the special force has been resurrected and further empowered by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, raising fears that the group will be used to enhance the Turkish leader’s authoritarian leadership.

Erdoğan spoke of his desire to “hear the watchmen’s whistles again at night” shortly after his government survived an attempted coup in the summer of 2016. Months later, the Interior Ministry set out plans to revive the institution, employing thousands of recruits in 2017 and around 10,000 in each year following

The watchmen are now armed with pistols and will be soon be authorised to demand identification and stop and search citizens, according to the draft parliamentary bill. The assembly’s internal affairs commission has so far approved nine of the legislation’s 18 articles.

The new generation of night-time community officers are mostly younger men with links to the youth wing of Erdoğan’s AKP, the Guardian said.

Erdoğan’s political opponents are depicting the initiative as an attempt to form a new and loyal paramilitary force.

Several have drawn comparisons with Iran’s Basij militia, a volunteer force loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose members beat and harass civilians who fall foul of the country’s strict morality laws, the Guardian said.

The AKP will choose how and where the watchmen will be deployed and they could feel subordinated to its political will, especially during a period of high unemployment, five senior members of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said in a statement to the parliamentary commission.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director, voiced similar concerns about the force.

“We are particularly concerned too about the lack of oversight mechanisms to regulate these community officers and to hold them to account when they abuse their powers,” she said, according to the Guardian. “There is a pervasive culture of police impunity already, and oversight of these officers is even more unclear and vague than it is for the regular police.”

Some people believe the government’s decision to empower the night watchmen comes from its desire to build a reliable, armed security force from the ground up. 

Over 30,000 suspected members of the Gülen religious movement, which the government blames for orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt, have now been purged from the police force, but the government believes there are still many more who remain active in the organisation, according to Deutsche Welle.