Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks on a possible reintroduction of capital punishment have triggered an outcry in the European Union, a leading advocate for its abolition.
Erdogan, famous for his provocative talk, triggered controversy earlier this month when he suggested the death penalty might be brought back due to popular support for the measure, particularly in terror-related cases.
But an appalled reaction from the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, was quick to follow.
“Global abolition of the death penalty is one of the main objectives of the EU’s human rights policy,” a spokesperson for European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said.
Hannes Swoboda, the president of the group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats at the European Parliament, was rather more blunt.
Erdogan’s proposal was “scandalous and provocative,” he said -- and a possible deal-breaker in Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU.
Earlier this month, Erdogan suggested that most people in Turkey backed a restoration of the death penalty, citing the suffering of hundreds of families who had lost loved ones in attacks by the “terrorist” PKK.
Returning to the subject on Sunday, he said: “The authority (to forgive a killer) belongs to the family of the slain, not to us. We need to make necessary adjustments.”
But some of Erdogan’s own colleagues from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved quickly to try to tamp down the flames.
“At the ministry, we are not working on that issue at the moment,” Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said last week.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also suggested that Turkey had no intention of going back on changes it had made in pursuit of its EU membership bid.
“We are faithful to the commitment we made in the EU process but we expect the same from the EU as well,” Davutoglu told reporters.
Ankara’s bid for membership has been dragging on since 2005 and a change of policy on this issue would only further complicate matters.
Erdogan’s suggestion appeared to be a direct attack on Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Ocalan was charged with treason and sentenced to hang in 1999, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in October 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty under EU pressure.
He is currently serving a life sentence at a high-security prison on the island of Imrali south of Istanbul.
Jean Marcou, a political scientist who holds academic posts in both France and Turkey, also played down Erdogan’s statements.
“Erdogan is known for his rash remarks; do not take it literally,” he said.
“His words should rather be seen primarily as a sign of his impatience and dissatisfaction with the blocks standing in front of Turkey’s EU bid.”
Others saw Erdogan’s revival of the debate as a diversionary tactic by the premier, who is currently contending with a hunger strike by some 700 Kurdish prisoners demanding better prison conditions for Ocalan.
“This is not the first time he is using diversion when he is in trouble,” one diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. The prisoners have been on hunger strike for more than two months.
But one European observer suggested his comments might be as much about strengthening his political position to further his career.
His party’s rules prevent him from running for prime minister again after his third term expires. But although that term expires in 2015, he has made it no secret that he is eyeing the presidency for 2014.
And if he had his way, the president’s post will acquire increase powers.
“He needs help from other parties to amend the constitution for stronger presidency and he is in for a hard competition in his own camp, particularly with current President Abdullah Gul, who is more moderate,” said the expert, who asked not to be named.
“So he needs to be some sort of a populist voice.”
Regardless of the motive however, the debate was putting Turkey in a bind and reinforcing its negative image in Europe, the expert added.
“This debate gives ammunition to those who reject Turkey’s candidacy,” he lamented. “This is really not good news.”
The leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli however has already challenged Erdogan to validate the proposal.
“We will give any kind of support to restore the death penalty,” Bahceli said. “Let’s see if you can do it!”