Turkish opposition warns new legislation could turn watchmen into paramilitary force

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government revived the country’s force of neighbourhood watchmen after surviving a coup attempt in 2016, but the expanded force is now being granted expanded powers in what the opposition calls an attempt to form a new and loyal paramilitary force.

It was the AKP that back in 2007 abolished the force of guards that since Ottoman times had patrolled marketplaces and acted as night watchmen in neighbourhoods. But since the failed putsch nine years later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reinstated the institution, boosted its numbers to several times the 8,000 that were on the books when it was abolished, and the government is now moving to augment its powers.

The watchmen had previously worked in a supporting role to the police force, but new legislation will allow them to demand identification from and search citizens, intervene in crimes as they take place, work with gendarmerie officers and preserve evidence at crime scenes. The opposition says this effectively grants them the same powers as the police.

Many believe this initiative has come from the government’s desire to build a reliable, armed security force from the ground up. Some 34,000 suspected members of the Gülen religious movement, which is blamed for the coup, have been purged from the police force since 2016, but the government believes there are still many who have gone undiscovered.

Recruitment of the watchmen began in 2017, and some 9,000 cadets were accepted for the six-month training course that year. Another 10,000 were recruited each year in 2018 and 2019, and another 10,000 are expected to join up this year.

“We can no longer protect our cities with walls, nor safeguard their order with traditional security forces alone,” Erdoğan said at a symposium on Jan. 2. “We need new methods for this new situation.”

The AKP’s new draft amendment followed hot on the heels of this speech, and is said to have been prepared on Erdoğan’s command. It is expected to pass next week thanks to the parliamentary majority enjoyed by the AKP and its far-right coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have condemned the draft law, which contradicts a court ruling this month that said watchmen did not have the authority to ask for identification documents. 

These two parties and the centre-right opposition Good Party denounced the draft law as it went through an Interior Ministry commission, calling its provision of arms to the watchmen an attempt to create what they called a parallel paramilitary force. The opposition parties’ objections were overruled by the ruling coalition. 

“They’re creating a new armed security force as an alternative to the police and gendarmerie,” said Yaşar Tüzün, a member of the commission from the CHP. “On the one hand, they are specified assistants (to the traditional security forces), but actually when you look at the contents of the amendment it is clear that a new armed force is being formed.”

Opposition politicians also objected to the expanded authorities the law will grant watchmen, including the power to search citizens, with a term meaning “pat down” used in the draft. Good Party lawmaker Aylin Cesur said could pave the way for unchecked sexual harassment by security officers, leading to the removal of the term, though the amended draft still allows officers to search suspects without touching them.

“Who is going to oversee them?” asked the HDP member of parliament Filiz Kerestecioğlu. “This ambiguous and murky proposal to augment watchmen’s authorities is bound to make anti-democratic practices even more deeply rooted in Turkey and to increase the number of human rights violations.” 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.