A new government bill presented to the Turkish Parliament that provides police and prosecutors with sweeping powers in searches, seizures, wiretaps, detentions and arrests, would reverse reforms approved in February and thus should be rejected, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
HRW warned in a news release published on its official website that the “bill 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 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 HRW. “This new law risks a return to the abusive policing practices of the past.”
The bill, prepared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), proposes critical changes to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) as well as other laws. With the suggested changes, it will be easier for the police to search the homes and workplaces of suspects as well as individuals themselves, since with the bill it will be enough for security forces to have “reasonable suspicion” to undergo a search rather than the current need for “strong suspicion based on concrete evidence.”
The rights group said there are five particularly problematic elements of the 35-article bill.
“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,” the statement said.
The second problematic element in the new bill, according to HRW, is the proposal that “would extend courts’ powers to seize assets by extending the range of crimes for which seizure orders can be applied at [the] 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 human rights watchdog said.
It also warned that the planned measure could permit the courts to confiscate the assets and property of individuals and companies with alleged links to the Hizmet movement — inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly accused of attempting a coup against the government. Gülen strongly denies this accusation.
The group mentioned that the third problematic measure included in the bill is the one that would extend the range of crimes for which the courts could authorize wiretaps to investigations for a series of new offenses, including a variety of crimes against the government. The bill would allow the power to wiretap to be extended to penal courts of peace, special courts that were granted significant authority through an omnibus law introduced by the AK Party earlier this year, instead of just high criminal courts.
The fourth measure that raises the group’s concern is the proposal that limits lawyers’ rights to examine the content of case files. According to the bill, lawyers will be able to see the content of files and evidence only after the indictment concerning a specific case is accepted by a court. It would reverse a February reform, HRW said, “reintroducing the restriction that such evidence can be withheld … in cases in which the prosecutor deems that the investigation may be imperiled.”
“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,” HRW said. It added that 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.” The statement said “Turkish 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.”
“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.”