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After Failed Coup, Some Turks Call For Reinstating The Death Penalty

Aug 2, 2016
Originally published on August 2, 2016 6:46 pm

Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004. But in the wake of last month's failed coup, Turks have been demanding it be reinstated for the coup plotters. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has encouraged parliament to consider such a move, saying the public will cannot be ignored.

Legal experts say applying a death sentence retroactively is problematic. European officials say a return to capital punishment would kill Turkey's bid to join the EU. But that hasn't checked a surge in public calls to bring it back.

Taking a rest on a recent sunny Istanbul afternoon, an elderly woman who gives her first name Fatima says she's lived in Turkey with and without the death penalty, and she knows which one she prefers.

"I remember when we had the death penalty – it was better then, now things are worse, the traitors get stronger," says Fatima, who declined to give her last name. "They should all be hanged, all the traitors: the PKK, Fetullah Gulen, the terrorists and the coup makers."

She's referring to a list of the government's most often-cited enemies: the U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, who denies accusations that he was behind the failed coup; Kurdish fighters from the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, who have been battling the army in southeastern Turkey; and the Islamic State, operating out of Iraq and Syria, increasingly with the help of sympathizers inside Turkey.

It's a popular point of view in Turkey, especially since the coup attempt on July 15. A number of pro-government rallies since then have featured demonstrators chanting for idam, the death penalty, for those behind the coup effort.

Sitting outside a barber shop on Istanbul's Asian side, 57-year-old Denis Teoman says he was among those who rushed to the streets when Erdogan made his dramatic call on the night of the coup. Teoman says anyone who betrays his country deserves to be executed.

"Everybody I know thinks they should bring back the death penalty, especially for the coup traitors," he says, adding that maybe convicted rapists should be executed as well, and the same goes for Kurdish militants, including the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

That last name is a sensitive one for Turkey's Kurdish ethnic minority. After leading the Kurdish separatist fight for years, Ocalan was captured in 1999, and was actually on death row when capital punishment was abolished.

At the time, Turkey was making a serious run at joining the European Union, and repealing the death penalty was hailed as an important sign of progress.

Ayse Berktay with the pro-Kurdish HDP, or People's Democratic Party, says it shouldn't even be a worry – legally a new death penalty couldn't be applied to Ocalan. But she says in the current climate it's hard to feel confident about anything, especially when Turkish politicians seem so willing to stir up conservative public opinion with issues like capital punishment.

"It has always been an issue, every year - I mean, it's been like a sword hanging on the head of the Kurdish community, this discussion about the death penalty," she says. "And it's always been brought back in connection with Abdullah Ocalan."

Berktay hopes cooler heads will prevail and Turkey will keep the death penalty off the books and keep its longshot bid to join the EU alive.

"Once you open the door to this, you can never know what lengths they will go to, so it's always necessary to keep struggling against this mentality," she says. "Plus it's necessary to keep up the international pressure and take a clear position against this, because there is no wavering on this."

Even before Turkey abolished the death penalty it had observed a self-imposed moratorium for decades – in all, it's been 32 years since anyone was executed here. Now some Turks are wondering if that will soon be changing.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004, and it hasn't executed anyone since the 1980s. But now many Turks are calling for executions after last month's failed attempt to topple the government. Legal experts say a new death penalty law couldn't be used retroactively on coup plotters, and the ongoing detentions of thousands raise doubts about who would be targeted. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been talking with Turks about their views.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Taking a rest from the afternoon sun, an elderly woman who will only give her first name - Fatima - in these highly charged times, says she's lived in Turkey with and without the death penalty, and she knows which one she prefers.

FATIMA: (Through interpreter) I remember when we had the death penalty. It was better then. Now things are worse. The traitors get stronger. They should all be hanged, all the traitors - the PKK, Fethullah Gulen, the terrorists and the coup makers.

KENYON: She's referring to a list of the government's most often-cited enemies - the U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who denies accusations of inspiring the failed coup; Kurdish fighters from the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, who have been battling the army in southeastern Turkey; and terrorists from the Islamic State operating out of Iraq and Syria increasingly with the help of sympathizers inside Turkey. It's a popular point of view here, especially since the July 15 coup attempt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: This anti-coup rally posted online featured demonstrators calling for idam, the death penalty for those behind the coup effort. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has encouraged those calls, saying the popular will supporting capital punishment should not be ignored. Fifty-seven-year-old Denis Teoman, sitting outside a barbershop on Istanbul's Asian side, says he was among those who rushed to the streets when Erdogan made his dramatic call on the night of the coup. Teoman says anyone who betrays his country deserves to be executed.

DENIS TEOMAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: "Everybody I know thinks they should bring back the death penalty, especially for the coup traitors," he says, adding that maybe convicted rapists should be executed as well. And the same goes for Kurdish militants, including the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. That last name makes the death penalty a sensitive issue for Turkey's Kurdish ethnic minority. After leading the Kurdish separatist effort for years, Ocalan was captured in 1999 and was actually on death row when capital punishment was abolished.

At the time, Turkey was making a serious run at joining the European Union, which called repealing the death penalty an essential step in gaining entry. Ayse Berktay with the pro-Kurdish HDP, or People's Democratic Party, says it shouldn't even be a worry. Legally, a new death penalty couldn't be applied to Ocalan. But she says in the current climate, it's hard to feel confident about anything, especially when Turkish politicians seem so willing to stir up conservative public opinion with issues like capital punishment.

AYSE BERKTAY: It has always been an issue every year. I mean, it's been like a sword hanging on the head of the Kurdish community, this discussion about the death penalty. And it's always been brought back in connection with Abdullah Ocalan.

KENYON: Berktay hopes cooler heads will prevail and Turkey will stay on track to join the EU.

BERKTAY: Once you open the door to this, you can never know what lengths they will go to. So it's always necessary to keep struggling against this mentality. Plus it's necessary to keep up the international pressure and take a clear position against this because there's no wavering on this.

KENYON: It's been 32 years since Turkey executed anyone. Now some Turks wonder if that will soon be changing. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.