Is the Turkish government supporting paedophilia through a bill that sets rapists free?

The controversy comes as Turkish aspirations of joining the European Union are hanging by a thread

As I was talking to my Turkish friend Murat from Istanbul through a Skype video call about my previous blog on Erdogan’s recent visit to Pakistan and motives behind this visit, he told me how a new issue has emerged in Turkey, which has sparked public outrage. This new issue revolves around a bill in Turkey that would overturn men’s convictions for child sex assault if they married their victim. The bill — which was brought forward by President Erdogan’s conservative AKP — was approved on Thursday night, but did not reach the number of votes required for it to be passed into law. Parliament will vote on the proposal again on Tuesday. Murat told me on Friday that “Last night, MPs from governing party issued a new legal decision and it is outrageous. It states that if a child gets raped and rapist marries his victim, punishment of rapist should be postponed.” If passed, the controversial proposal would apply to statutory rape cases without use of “force, threat, or any other restriction on consent” involving girls aged 15 or younger. This Bill if passed will pardon up to 3,000 child rapists in Turkey if the perpetrator married his victim.

The legal age of consent in Turkey is 18 but child marriage is prevalent, especially in the southeast. Civil marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in Turkey, but marriage between men and underage girls through religious ceremonies is not anomalous, especially in rural parts of the Sunni Muslim nation of 79 million people. Murat told me that “since Republic of Turkey was founded on secular basis, it was strictly illegal to marry children or more than 1 woman. Erdogan and his Islamist government have been trying to undo the achievements of secular Turkey for 14 years after they cleansed all progressive people from government positions. This is one of the gradual steps toward a complete Islamist State which will be similar to Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

 “The AKP is pushing through a text which pardons those who marry the child that they raped,” said an MP for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Ozgur Ozel. The opposition, celebrities, and even an association whose deputy chairman is the daughter of President Erdogan, exhibited disquiet over the move. Hundreds demonstrated against the bill in central Istanbul, tearing up copies of the proposed legislation and raising slogans like “rape is a crime against humanity”. On Twitter, the hashtag  "#TecavuzMesrulastirilamaz (Rape Cannot be Legitimised)” became a top-trending topic as users took to social media to articulate their displeasure.

A petition on beseeching the authorities to obstruct the legislation has received over 600,000 signatures.

The pro-government Women’s and Democracy Association (Kadem), whose deputy chairman is Erdogan’s younger daughter Sümeyye Erdogan, said one of the biggest problems of the bill would be proving what constituted force or consent. Turkish celebs like heartthrob actor Baris Arduc condemned this move by tweeting“How can this be done to someone who has been raped and lost her mind, her dreams and her life”. Baris further added “I can’t believe such thing could happen”. Other celebs like famous singer Murat Boz also condemned such move by the Turkish government on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. Prominent actress Nurgül Yeşilçay tweeted that “what we are talking about is not being a woman in this country, or being a man, but staying a human being”. Famous Paris-based Turkish writer Elif Shafak also condemned this move by tweeting that "The state should neither legitimise nor protect rapists. It should punish them." Critics have warned that such a law would implicitly endorse sexual molestation, while the government has defended the bill as an endeavour to tackle legal complications stemming from child marriage. Government officials have described the extensive criticism of this move as an uncouth perversion of their objectives. “If a 50- or 60-year-old is told to marry an 11-year-old girl after raping her, and then marries her years later, she will suffer the consequences,” said Omer Suha Aldan, an MP for the main opposition party CHP. The minister of justice, Bekir Bozdag, went on national television on Friday to defend the proposal, arguing that the bill was a response to the “unfortunate reality” of teenage marriage in Turkey’s conservative society. 

He said that the proposed law would pardon men who had consensual sex with an underage girl they wanted to marry, adding that around 3,000 people could be released. "When a child is then born from this non-official union, the doctor warns the prosecutor and the man is sent to prison, putting the child and mother into financial difficulties,” he said. “Those who say ‘rapists will benefit from this’ are distorting the situation.” The Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the measure would only be applied once on past convictions, applying to offences committed before 11 November, 2016. “There are people who get married before reaching the legal age. They just don’t know the law,” he told reporters in Ankara, adding that the measure aims to “get rid of this injustice”. He said claims that the law would de facto legalise rape were “completely false”, noting that the government had raised penalties for the crime, accusing the CHP of exploiting the issue for political gain.

The controversy comes as Turkish aspirations of joining the European Union are hanging by a thread. Some European leaders have called for accession talks to be frozen, citing deterioration in freedoms in the country which they say are taking it ever further from European norms. Earlier this year, women’s rights groups reacted with rage when Turkey abolished a criminal code article classifying all sexual acts with children aged 15 or younger as “sexual abuse” in response to a local court’s petition to lower the age of consent. Turkish authorities have also shut down the world’s first international feminist news agency amid a wide ranging government crackdown on opposition media. JINHA, a Kurdish all-female news agency based in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir, was closed down and their main office was forcibly sealed earlier this month. Now it’s obvious from all of the above mentioned instances that Turkey’s reputation as an oasis of stability in the chaotic Middle East has crumbled.

At the end of our discussion Murat said “Let’s hope for the best and hope for another Ataturk in future to salvage women, children, minorities and Secular Turkey. ”Another Ataturk-like political figure in future might act as a Messiah for Turks who are being oppressed under the repressive autocratic regime of Erdogan. I wish Turkey will not fall to the ranks of backward and benighted nations by stagnating under the regime of Erdogan.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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