Critics of the law also believe the draft seeks to subordinate the Turkish state to the intelligence organization by placing MİT superior to the rule of law and democracy.
Parliament began discussing the draft law on April 9, and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) expressed its decisiveness to have the law passed in Parliament despite the strong protests of the opposition parties. The opposition says they will fight the draft even though their number of seats in Parliament is not enough to prevent the draft from being voted in.
The AK Party controls 326 seats in the 550-member Parliament. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has 134 chairs, while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) holds 52 seats. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has 22 seats; independent deputies hold 15 chairs and the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) controls eight seats.
The CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman, Engin Altay, said the MİT draft law contains elements that violate the Constitution. “A government cannot make MİT enjoy rights that are not enshrined in the Constitution. The government, with its insistence on doing this, is forcing legal boundaries drawn for itself. It is destroying those boundaries,” Altay stated.
If passed, the law will introduce penalties of up to 12 years’ imprisonment for anyone who publishes highly classified MİT documents, a move that critics say is designed to deter journalists from making secret documents public.
Parliament began discussing the law first in mid-February, but the AK Party decided on Feb. 28 to put off the law until after the local elections upon reactions of the opposition parties, civilian groups and President Abdullah Gül.
The AK Party decided to go ahead with the draft last week, but the objection of the opposition parties and the president to the bill remains a challenge. In an interview with Turkish journalists in Kuwait last week, Gül said, “Turkey should adopt pro-freedom but not pro-security policies,” in reference to the MİT draft law.
The draft law was not adopted in Parliament by the time Sunday’s Zaman went to print.
The MİT law gives the organization the right to hold talks with all groups, including terrorist organizations, that pose a threat to national security. The article provides legal grounds for the Oslo talks, a series of meetings held secretly between some senior operatives of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and MİT officials in Oslo in 2010 in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the country’s Kurdish problem.
The talks drew the ire of opposition parties in Turkey, who accused the AK Party of contributing to terrorism by arguing that the “peace talks” were part of bargaining with the terrorist group.
In addition, if the draft law is passed, MİT will have unfettered access to the archives and databases of every ministry and it will be able to collect any data on citizens. What is more, the law requires private companies to hand over consumer data and technical equipment when requested.
The law will also allow MİT to conduct operations against possible threats overseas. The organization will also be authorized to wiretap phone conversations overseas upon the orders of the undersecretary and his aide.
The CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman, Akif Hamzaçebi, said one of the most controversial articles included in the MİT draft is the authority given to the intelligence organization to conduct operations overseas. “Why would they need such authority?” he asked.
Critics of the draft also believe that the AK Party is working to turn Turkey into a “Mukhabarat,” or intelligence, state with the MİT draft.
“Turkey will move toward becoming a Mukhabarat state with the MİT draft. The prime minister is becoming more like [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. The regime in Turkey has changed,” stated Atilla Kart, a CHP deputy, adding: “Turkey is no longer a state with the rule of law. The regime in Turkey has changed into a police and party state.”
According to the draft law, if prosecutors receive a tip about MİT officials or affiliates, they will initially seek the organization’s opinion about the authenticity of the tip. If MİT says the tip concerns a duty or operation of the organization, then prosecutors will not be able to launch an investigation. In addition, prosecutors will not be able to investigate claims against MİT officials coming from unidentified individuals or individuals using fake names.
MHP deputy Alim Işık said the MİT draft law is seeking to provide legal immunity for officials of the intelligence organization. However, the deputy believes MİT and its officials should be placed under the control of Parliament. According to Işık, the government wants to pass the MİT law because it does not want intelligence officials to be targeted by the judiciary after a series of talks they held with the terrorist PKK in Oslo and a number of incidents marred by intelligence negligence in relations between Turkey and Syria, referring to the stopping and searching of several Syria-bound trucks by prosecutors earlier this year in some Turkish provinces, including the southern province of Adana.
Sinan Oğan, another MHP deputy, believes the AK Party is both working to place the judiciary under its control and build an intelligence state. “The government has embarked on a dangerous adventure,” he said, adding that government officials have put the entire state in danger in attempts to save themselves from accusations of corruption and bribery. Oğan believes the draft would ensure a legal cover for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has found himself struggling with a corruption investigation that went public on Dec. 17, 2013.
“The judiciary, police force and MİT have always served as elements of balance. Upsetting this balance would harm Turkey. MİT should not function to gather intelligence about domestic structures or be used against critics in the country. The intelligence organization should focus on foreign threats. It should work against terrorist and separatist groups,” Oğan added.
The draft has also created concerns in the media as it introduces severe penalties for obtaining and publishing MİT documents.
If a person obtains, leaks or forges a confidential MİT document, he can face a prison sentence of between four and 10 years. If a person obtains and publishes a document related to MİT members, he faces between three and seven years’ imprisonment. If this publication makes its way into print or visual media, the sentence will then be increased to up to 12 years.
Attempts to empower MİT with extra powers come as part of a series of draconian measures taken by the government to maintain strict control over institutions such as the judiciary that should normally be independent and impartial. The MİT draft law is widely believed to have been introduced by the government as a tool to silence the increasing opposition in the country, in particular after the disclosure on Dec. 17 last year of a high-profile corruption and bribery scandal that has included not only several Cabinet ministers but also Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself and his family.
MİT has already come under the spotlight for its unaccountability as well as its controversial role in Turkey’s highly problematic Syrian policies. The draft law does not address these problems of MİT and even has the potential to weaken Turkey’s ability to address the internal and external security challenges that it has been going through.
Cevat Öneş, former deputy undersecretary of MİT, said in a telephone interview with this columnist that the draft law on the intelligence organization is not designed to address the general problem of a clash of authority among the intelligence, defense and security apparatuses of Turkey. The draft law should have been prepared by establishing a consensus with the opposition, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the like, if the government had wanted to avoid the ongoing atmosphere of tension since the graft probe became public, he said.
The government has initiated a witch hunt against the opposition that criticizes its authoritarian measures and pressed for a series of new laws, widely believed to be meant to stifle the graft investigation. Therefore the MİT law is understood not to be intended to bring this spy agency up to democratic standards and to turn it into an efficient organization but to use it as a tool in government measures to suppress the opposition.
Öneş is of the opinion that the draft law has been brought to Parliament very quickly, without a thorough debate on MİT or other security-related organizations with the aim of ensuring cooperation among different security and defense institutions. This is not acceptable, he added.
The current draft law, if approved by Parliament, has the potential to weaken MİT while further upsetting the balance between the judiciary, police force, defense apparatus and MİT, harming Turkey.
In the face of strong opposition, the government made several amendments to the law that included the creation of a parliamentary commission to oversee the activities of MİT. Yet, Öneş said, while it is in the interest of Turkey to ensure democratic oversight of MİT, it is important to know what the functions of the planned parliamentary commission to oversee MİT activities will be.
“Whether the planned commission will be able to audit the M budget, whether its activities will be shared with this commission and whether this commission will be able to remove concerns over whether MİT will become transparent. All these questions need to be addressed by a commission to be set up for us to say that MİT will become transparent and accountable,” he stressed.
Currently, neither MİT, nor the police force, nor Turkish military activities have come under Parliament’s oversight. Hence none of these organizations are transparent and accountable.
As former MİT Undersecretary Öneş stressed, all the events taking place, in particular since the Dec. 17 graft probe, as well as the way government handles the Syrian crisis, demonstrate that Turkey’s state management is in a crisis that has no place in democratic societies.