Turkey grants increased power to neighbourhood watchmen

Parliament approves bill that critics say empowers an under-qualified force and may lead to human rights violations.

Turkey’s Parliament has approved a contentious government-proposed bill that will grant neighbourhood watchmen powers that are almost on a par with the country’s police force.

The bill was passed overnight on Thursday with backing from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party and its nationalist ally, despite opposition parties’ concerns that the legislation empowers an under-qualified force and will lead to human rights violations and a further erosion of freedoms.

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It was approved after days of tense debate that culminated in violence on Tuesday, with an opposition legislator saying he was punched by a politician from the nationalist party.

The watchmen, known as “bekci”, traditionally guarded neighbourhoods and parks and were armed only with batons and whistles.

The force was abolished and folded into the police in 2008, but Erdogan’s government revived it following a failed coup attempt in 2016.

The bill allowed the more than 21,000 neighbourhood guards – who now also include women – to use firearms, to stop vehicles, carry out ID checks and conduct body searches. The guards cannot arrest or interrogate suspects.

The government and its nationalist ally insist the neighbourhood guards meet a need for an auxiliary force to assist police and that the new powers will facilitate police operations. They argue that neighbourhoods have become safer since the force was revived.

The main opposition, pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), and two other opposition parties voted against the proposal, calling it an attempt by the government to form a loyal militia.

They have also voiced concerns that the force, which operates at night, would act as “morality police” in line with the government’s conservative and religious values.

The opposition argued that recruitment to the neighbourhood guards is opaque, and has lead to suspicions that those enrolled are chosen among ruling party supporters.

The opposition parties have also criticised the government for prioritising the security force instead of focusing on unemployment or other negative effects from the coronavirus outbreak.

“People have lost their jobs and their salaries … what good is the watchmen to them?” asked pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party legislator Filiz Kerestecioglu.

“An under-educated mass that will perhaps act as a morality police is being unleashed on society.”

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