(Istanbul) - A new government bill before the Turkish parliament would expand police search and court seizure and wiretap powers, reversing reforms approved in February, 2014. The bill, which parliament should reject, would introduce a new charge that could potentially be used against government critics and restrict lawyers’ right to access evidence against their clients at the investigation stage.
The bill was unexpectedly proposed by parliament members from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on October 14. After review by the the Justice Commission of the Parliament, it may be submitted to the General Assembly for a vote in the coming days.
“The government seems to be intent on reversing its own much-needed reforms to control the powers of search and wiretapping,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This new law risks a return to the abusive policing practices of the past.”
The proposed changes come after violent protests in Diyarbakır and other cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast in the first week of October that left 40 people dead. Senior government figures have spoken of the need to increase penalties against protesters who throw petrol bombs and resist police orders to disperse, and to increase police powers to use lethal force against protesters wielding petrol bombs. No new legal amendments have yet been proposed on these issues and the current bill is more focused on widening powers of criminal investigation and sanctions in the form of seizure of assets.
There are five particularly problematic elements of the 35-article bill which amends elements of the Criminal Procedure Code (CMK) and Turkish Penal Code as well as other laws.
First, the bill would expand the power of police to carry out searches based on “reasonable suspicion.” It lowers the threshold for such searches and reverses a reform from February 2014 that allows courts to grant police powers to search people and property only when there is “a strong suspicion based on concrete evidence.” The February reform was introduced to address long-standing concerns about arbitrary and discriminatory use of such powers by Turkish police.
Second, the new bill would extend courts’ powers to seize assets by extending the range of crimes for which seizure orders can be applied at criminal investigation stage or during trials, including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. This charge has been applied to individuals and groups against whom there is scant evidence of involvement in activities that could reasonably be judged as an attempted coup.
The most recent example is the prosecution of 35 people linked to the Beşiktaş Football Club’s Çarşı fan group. They will stand trial in December on charges of attempting to overthrow the government for taking part in the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013 over government plans for development on a park site. The proposal could potentially allow for confiscating the Çarşı defendants’ assets and property during their trial.
The measure could also permit the courts to confiscate the assets and property of individuals and companies with alleged links to the Fethullah Gülen movement, the former allies whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly accused of attempting a coup against the government.
Third, the new bill would extend the range of crimes for which the courts could authorize wiretaps to investigations for a raft of new offenses, including a variety of crimes against state security and against the constitutional order. The wiretap power would also be extended to a new category of judges created by the government in July called criminal judges of the peace. These judges already can make decisions about key steps – including arrest, bail, seizure and unfreezing of assets, and search warrants – during criminal investigations.
Fourth, the bill would restrict lawyers’ access to evidence against their clients in the case file at the investigation stage. It would reverse a February reform, reintroducing the restriction that such evidence can be withheld “in cases in which the prosecutor deems that the investigation may be imperiled.” In a January 2012 report about Turkey’s justice system, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner raised concerns about such a measure, citing examples of suspects in pretrial detention who were unable to challenge the lawfulness of their detention at investigation stage because they could not get information about the evidence on which they were being held.
Fifth, the bill would create a new criminal offense of “making threats” against public officials that could be used to prosecute people who criticize the government. The bill also criminalizes threats made by public officials. Both offenses carry sentences of two to five years in prison, and with the potential for pretrial detention. Courts frequently convict people for the crime of “insult” and, if used loosely, the crime of “threatening” a public official could potentially become another means to prosecute dissenting voices.
Over the past year, faced with widespread public protest and a corruption scandal implicating government ministers, the Turkish government has adopted a series of problematic laws that curb judicial independence, weaken the rule of law, increase internet censorship, and reduce accountability over the security services.
“Extending the scope for searches, seizure of assets, and wiretaps raises alarm bells that the government is preparing for a new clampdown on political opponents,” Sinclair-Webb said. “The bill is another indication that Turkey is prepared to roll back human rights and perpetuate the abusive pattern of policing we have seen in the past.”