When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his rubber-stamp parliament passed a law for the temporary release of around 45,000 prisoners "to stem the spread of the coronavirus," they were surgically precise not to let one single political prisoner walk free. Pictured: Released prisoners meet their families as they get off a bus near Bakirkoy women's prison on April 15, 2020 in Istanbul. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Aleaddin Çakıcı is a well-known Turkish mafia figure. But his militant far-right past makes him a shadier figure in Turkey's domestic and international political scenes, not just in the criminal underworld. In the 1970s he was a leading fighter in Turkey's near civil war between ultra-left and -right fractions. His first arrest came shortly after the military coup d'état in 1980: He was tried on charges of murdering 41 leftists.
According to leaked reports, Çakıcı was used as a hitman in the 1980s and 1990s by Turkish intelligence. His targets were leftists and pro-Kurdish groups. Turkish intelligence also tasked him with carrying out operations in foreign countries, including Greece and Lebanon, targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).
In 2018 Devlet Bahçeli, a far-right politician and a staunch supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, described Çakıcı as "brave and fearless" and as someone "who was in love with [his] homeland and ideals." Bahçeli had said that Çakıcı was in prison on multiple sentences for murder, armed attack, money laundering, and leading an illegal armed group. Among other such escapades, he had contracted out the murder of his ex-wife, who in 1995 was shot dead in front of their son.
Çakıcı's is certainly not the résumé of an ideal, law-abiding, peaceful citizen. But last month, at age 67, he walked free from the prison in which he had been kept. How could this ruthless crime machine walk out of prison, jump into a chauffeur-driven car and be escorted to a holiday resort accompanied by a big convoy and hundreds of "devotees" who gave him a hero's welcome? How, especially in a country where a simple joke on social media can earn an otherwise honest citizen several months in jail?
The short answer is amnesty. Erdoğan's rubber-stamp parliament passed a law that opened the way for the temporary release of around 45,000 prisoners "to stem the spread of the coronavirus." Another justification for the law is "prison overcrowding." The amnesty bill will reduce the number of inmates by a third from around 300,000, while Turkey's present prison capacity is 230,000.
When drafting the bill, Erdoğan and his MPs were surgically precise not to let one single political prisoner walk free. About 50,000 inmates who were excluded from the bill, as terror convicts and suspects would not be eligible for amnesty.
That is where the trouble starts: under terror charges, the expression of even the slightest dissent could cost a Turk several months in pre-trial detention.
It did not come as surprise that Turkey -- minus team Erdoğan and mobsters -- unanimously condemned the move. "You forgive the mafia... You don't forgive journalists that write the truth. You don't forgive those that want peace," said opposition lawmaker Turan Aydoğan.
"The state wants to release the ones who committed a crime against citizens while keeping the ones who questioned its authoritarianism behind bars," thousands of anti-amnesty campaigners including journalists, academics and NGO members said in a signed statement. "When lives are at stake, there can be no discrimination based on beliefs or ideologies".
Two European Union lawmakers, Nacho Sanchez Amor and Sergey Lagodinsky called the law "a great disappointment".
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye that the amnesty law was "utterly discriminatory" and politically biased. "Turkey is notorious for having a justice system under tight political control and locking up government opponents and perceived critics on terrorism charges," she said.
According to an annual report of the Turkish Journalists' Union:
- There are 85 journalists presently in jail (and excluded from the amnesty bill)
- Only in the past year 103 journalists were detained 108 times
- They spent a minimum 239 days in jail
- Eleven journalists claimed they were beaten up in jail, two complained of forced strip search
- In the past year new investigations were launched against 79 journalists
Erdoğan and his men just shrugged it off, but the opposition MPs said on April 14 that they would take the law to Turkey's top court (the Constitutional Court) and demand its annulment.
"Many aspects of the reform package violate the constitution," said opposition MP Mustafa Yeneroğlu "It is highly likely that the Constitutional Court will have to extend the scope of the package because of the principle of non-discrimination".
The top court may or may not announce a verdict to correct this galling piece of Erdoğan legislation. Regardless of that verdict, however, the bitter truth will remain: More than half a century after its march into Western democracy, Turkey is a country where a pen is viewed as more dangerous than a gun. Under Erdoğan's 18 years in power, the free-fall of this professed NATO ally back toward the authoritarian East looks sadly irrevocable.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.