LONDON—Human rights groups in Europe are urging Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to exercise restraint as he pushes to implement the death penalty in the wake of last month’s failed coup against him.The call for reinstatement of the death penalty has become frequent in the weeks since the failed coup attempt as Erdogan carries out a massive purge of those suspected of taking part it in it.
The purge has mostly targeted members of the military, police and intelligence services, journalists, and academics belonging to the outlawed movement headed by cleric Futhullah Gulen, a U.S. resident. Tens of thousands have been arrested or suspended from their jobs.
Millions attending a rally Sunday in Istanbul heard the Turkish president repeat his support for legalizing executions in the country for the first time since 2004 if the Turkish parliament decides to introduce a such a measure.
“The U.S. has it, Japan has it, China has it. Most of the world has it. So they are allowed to have it,” Erdogan told the rally. “Sovereignty belongs to the people, so if the people make this decision I am sure the political parties will comply,” he said.
Amnesty International officials in London said Monday the organization is “alarmed” by the statements, which the group sees as a clear suggestion that the death penalty would be meant to punish those responsible for the July 15th coup attempt. More than 200 people were killed in the failed coup, some of them by putschist soldiers who fired at civilians taking to the streets to stop the coup.
“The appalling violence committed by those behind the 15 July failed coup led to the tragic loss of more than 200 lives and the Turkish government must bring all those responsible for these crimes to justice. However, this should be done through fair trials not subject to the death penalty,” said Fotis Filippou Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director.
Istanbul officials have set aside a plot of land for what they dubbed a “traitors’ cemetery” next to a dog shelter in the outskirts of the city. In announcing the plans for the cemetery, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas said, “May every passerby curse them and not let them rest in their tombs.” Topbas said those buried at the cemetery would not receive rites according to Muslim tradition.
The cemetery has only one grave, Mehmet Karabekir, a military officer accused of taking part in the coup attempt and who died in it. Reports said his family refused to accept the body out of shame, and possibly fear.
In contrast to the cheers that Erdogan’s calls received at Sunday’s rally, the plans for the cemetery and the mayor’s harsh words have been reason for pause among some Turks. Officials have largely distanced themselves from the plans and have removed a sign that that read “Traitors’ Cemetery” from the plot, reflecting what analysts say could be growing unpopularity of Erdogan’s retaliatory actions that some see as cruel and extreme.
“Reintroducing this ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment would be a major setback for human rights,” said Amnesty’s Filippou.
Erdogan’s support for reintroduction of the death penalty pushes Turkey even farther away from the possibility of joining the European Union, an effort that had only recently been re-energized by a migrant-swapping deal that promised, among other things, eventual visa free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe in exchange for billions of dollars in EU aid to handle the migrants.
EU officials quickly made it clear that a return of the death penalty will kill Turkey’s prospects for membership. Turkey is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, and “no country can become an EU state if it introduces the death penalty,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month.
Erdogan has threatened to pull out the EU migrant deal, saying the deal “might not be possible” if the EU does not honor its commitments, including those on visa-free travel.
Analysts have long believed Turkey’s EU accession bid is dead and the Turkish leaders’ iron-fisted approach will only push Turkey farther away from Europe.
“Erdogan’s endorsement of the death penalty might signal the end of Turkey’s [already nearly non-existent] EU accession prospects and a more troubled relationship with Europe and the U.S.,” writes Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at Chatham House.
“This uncompromising approach in the post-coup period will have profound negative implications on Turkey’s domestic politics, security and foreign policy in the foreseeable future to the detriment of its stability and prosperity,” Hakura said.