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.