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Surveillance state?

Senada Sokollu / sstApril 9, 2014

Turkey's government has submitted a draft law to parliament in a bid to strengthen the position of the country's intelligence service. Critics say this will turn Turkey into a surveillance state.

A eye looking through a keyhole Photo: © Evgeniya Ponomareva
Image: Evgeniya Ponomareva - Fotolia.com

After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to secure a clear victory in local elections at the end of March, his government has taken on the next controversial task that's bound to spell trouble: Erdogan pushes for a stronger intelligence service within the state apparatus.

If Erdogan has his way, Turkey's intelligence service MIT would become much more powerful and much more detached from the country's judiciary, critics have said. They fear this would circumvent separation of powers.

Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) submitted a first draft law in mid-February. According to Turkish newspaper "Hurriyet", Turkish President Abdullah Gul had already called on the government to rework the draft. Erdogan's AKP plans to have the law passed by parliament by the end of June.

The Turkish government has been dealing with severe corruption charges since mid-December. In the past weeks, Erdogan has also increasingly come under pressure for his own role in the scandals.

Is Erdogan turning Turkey into a police state?

"The draft law is another attempt by the government to go against corruption charges," said Engin Altay, a member of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). The National Movement Party (MHP) has called the draft law a "scandal" and went as far as to say the Erdogan administration was trying to turn Turkey into a Mukhabarat state - or police state - with the government's secret service being in control.

Criticism paired with sarcasm has also been voiced by pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). "Since we now know that the prime minister has taken on the position of the mayor, the justice minister and the senior public prosecutor, it's understandable that he wants to be the head of the secret service as well," HDP chair Ertugrul Kurkcu told "Hurriyet." "The law is likely going to cater to this desire."

A picture representing a mugshot of the twitter bird is seen on a smart phone with a Turkish flag (photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Erdogan's Twitter ban was overthrown by Turkey's Constitutional CourtImage: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

The bill in its current form is going to give the Turkish intelligence service much more power as controls by Turkey's judiciary would be limited, said Lami Bertan Tokuzlu, a constitutional lawyer.

"If there are plans to take legal action against the intelligence service's work, the service would need to be consulted first," Tokuzlu told DW. "If the intelligence service then decides the lawsuit collides with its own jurisdiction, there will be no prosecution. That means the work of the secret service can no longer be questioned in court. This is very worrisome."

A 'violation of the Turkish Constitution'

Another problematic issue of the draft law is the intelligence service's access to personal data and information, he added. "The new draft allows the intelligence service full access to all private data and bank transactions." That is a violation of Article 20 of the Turkish Constitution which protects citizens' privacy.

It was understood that the secret service had to gain access to certain types of information when security was at stake, Tokuzlu said. "But according to the European Court for Human Rights the respective law has to contain regulations on fighting abuse of the data. But in this case there are no such controls. The secret service is provided with almost absolute power," he added.

Up to this point, both police and secret service had to ask the public prosecutor's office for permission before they were allowed to collect information. "According to Turkish media, the intelligence service had been gathering such information illegally in the past. Now, there will be legal grounds for these acts. That's unacceptable," he said.

Erdogan (photo: (AP Photo/Kayhan Ozer, Turkish Prime Minister's Press Office) pixel)
Erdogan is helping the intelligence service to circumvent controls by Turkey's judiciaryImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Umit Ozdag is concerned as well. The political scientist has lectured classes at Turkey's Military Academy, Police Academy, the Academy of National Security and the Ministry of Interior Affairs. "This law is an attempt to withdraw the secret service from judiciary controls. It's another attempt by the government to increase controls on legislative and judiciary," Ozdag told DW. He said he expects the Constitutional Court to discard parts of the law. In democratic systems - and Turkey sees itself in these ranks - secret services are not above the law, he said.

The new law would also extend the secret service's grip on external affairs, according to Tokuzlu. "It would set the regulatory framework for the secret service to officially negotiate with the Kurdish PKK," he said. It was quite clear that the government intended to shirk responsibility of the peace process, political scientist Ismet Akca of Istanbul's Yildiz University said. "The government should take up negotiations with the Kurdish PKK, since it's a political topic. But if the government doesn't want to disclose certain acts, it pushes the intelligence service to the front," Akca told DW.

Power shift to boost Erdogan's influence

The Turkish government doesn't trust its police and judiciary, Akca said. Before the AKP came to power, the military was at the epicenter - the AKP government was constantly fighting to break that. Together with then-ally Fethullah Gulen, the AKP managed to place Turkey's judiciary and police at the helm. But as the Gulen movement increased its power in the ranks of police and judiciary it also turned into one of Erdogan's rivals. The prime minister decided to draft a new Turkish law with his intelligence service at the center.

"It's a power shift within the state to make Erdogan more powerful," Akca said. If the secret service gains power, Erdogan does too as MIT is controlled by the prime minister, he added.

The AKP government is restructuring the Turkish security apparatus through non-democratic means, Ozdag said.

"Turkey's judiciary used to have the option to control the executive branch," Ozdag said. "But for about three months it's been safe to say that there is no such thing as the rule of law in Turkey anymore."