Turkish women’s rights activists concerned about proposed ‘amnesty for child abusers’

The amnesty draft had been tabled after pressure by Islamic groups close to the AKP.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Women perform the Chilean anti-rape song during a protest against gender  violence in Istanbul, last December.      (Reuters)
Ongoing struggle. Women perform the Chilean anti-rape song during a protest against gender violence in Istanbul, last December. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Women’s rights activists in Turkey said they are concerned that an amnesty planned by the government could result in impunity for child abusers.

“This bill will not become law and it must not become law,” said Selin Nakipoglu, a lawyer and activist.

The draft proposal is part of a wide-ranging amnesty plan that could free tens of thousands of prisoners by reducing mandatory prison times for a range of crimes and widening the use of alternative criminal justice methods such as house arrest and probation.

The amnesty has been postponed several times and Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said the final version of the bill would become clear only after consultations between political parties in parliament. Women’s rights activists said they expect the package to be tabled in parliament this month. There is no official timetable by the government.

Convicted sex offenders, drug dealers and members or organised crime gangs, as well as people sentenced under Turkey’s controversial anti-terror laws, would be excluded from the amnesty, the government said. However, a planned exception for certain sexual offences would amount to an “amnesty for rapists,” Hulya Gulbahar, a women’s rights activist said by telephone.

The proposal says a sexual offender could be released from prison if the age difference between him and the victim is less than 15 years, if there is no criminal complaint and if the offender and the victim are married. Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam, withdrew a similar bill in 2016 because of protests. A group of 197 women’s rights organisations called on the government to cancel the new draft as well.

The AKP said the bill could protect thousands of families in socially conservative sectors of society from harm.

Many conservative families marry off their daughters before they reach the legal age of 18 in religious ceremonies called “imam weddings” but thousands of husbands end up in prison when underage wives are registered in hospitals when they give birth, triggering criminal charges by prosecutors. Reports said 4,000 families could be affected. The law would be a one-off amnesty so sexual intercourse following an “imam wedding” would count as a crime after a yet to be determined cut-off date.

Women’s rights groups rejected the government’s argument that an exception from prosecution in such cases is beneficial for young mothers because many are left penniless when their husbands are in prison. Activists said the bill would legalise child abuse if it became law.

Murat Emir, an opposition lawmaker in Ankara, said last year that teenage pregnancies in Turkey were much more widespread than thought. Citing figures from Turkey’s statistics office, he said 84,500 girls under 18 had given birth since 2014. He said in parts of eastern and south-eastern Turkey, among the poorest and most conservative regions of the country, girls as young as 11 years were married off.

Gulbahar said the draft proposal was not an isolated initiative but an element of a broader effort by the AKP to implement ultra-conservative social policies.

“This amnesty project is part of the same policies that also include child marriage and an advice to couples to have many children,” she said.

Nakipoglu agreed. “This policy means underpinning the system of male dominance with religious rules and taking a stance against gender equality,” she said by telephone.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly calls on Turkish families to have at least three children to save the country from going the same way as aging Western societies. In a recent speech, he complained that the average age of people getting married in Turkey is rising and that many Turks never get married at all. Official figures indicated that the median age in Turkey had risen from 28 years in 2007 to more than 32 years in 2019.

Nakipoglu said her sources told her that the amnesty draft had been tabled after pressure by Islamic groups close to the AKP.

Two years ago, Turkey’s state directorate for religious affairs, which oversees the practice of Islam in the country and administers its more than 80,000 mosques, caused an uproar with a statement on its website saying that Islam allowed 9-year-old girls to be married. The post was taken down after protests and the directorate published a sermon condemning child marriages.

Women rights groups said they are determined to fight the new proposal.

“It will not be easy to stop it,” Gulbahar said. The AKP and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, a driving force behind the amnesty package, have a comfortable majority of seats in parliament.

Repeated delays in getting the package to parliament could be a sign that the government side is not convinced that society would accept the amnesty proposals, however.

Gulbahar pointed to a recent stir caused by a religiously conservative professor at Istanbul’s Yildiz University, Bedri Gencer. In a tweet, Gencer argued that a massive earthquake in eastern Turkey that killed 41 people in December was caused by Turkey’s decision to ban underage marriages even though the unions were allowed by God. Following protests against the statement, Yildiz University distanced itself from Gencer, saying the tweet had been “unacceptable.”

23