Uproar erupted in Turkey on Friday over a proposal from the ruling AK Party that would allow men sentenced to prison for statutory rape to be set free if they married their victims, with the opposition and rights groups slamming it as amnesty for sexual crimes.
The proposal, which was approved in an initial parliamentary reading on Thursday but must be passed as part of a larger legal package to be debated next week, would allow men who sexually abused underage girls "without force, threat, or any other restriction on consent" before Nov. 16, 2016, to have their sentences dropped if they marry the victim.
The Justice Ministry said in a statement the proposal was designed to free men who married underage girls in religious ceremonies that were agreed to by the girl and her family. It said the proposal in no way would benefit child rapists.
The proposal led to street protests and a backlash on social media, with the hashtag #TecavuzMesrulastirilamaz, or "rape cannot be legitimized," trending.
Civil marriage is illegal for minors under the age of 18, although a court decision based on 'exceptional circumstances' can grant marriage for those aged 16 years or older. However, Islamic religious ceremonies are common in rural parts of the country, especially the southeast, as are forced marriages.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that those opposed to the proposal were "distorting" the issue by saying it legitimized rape. He said the AK Party had taken many steps to prevent child marriage and rape over its 12 years in power
"The proposal is designed to do away with the unjust treatment against the families of men in prison and women on the outside who had children from such marriages," Bozdag said on Twitter.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the proposal was designed for couples who married at an early age and had children without being aware of existing law. He said it would only be a one-off, retroactive policy that would help unite some 3,000 families.
The opposition, child NGOs, human rights groups and women's organizations sharply criticized the proposal, saying it legitimized underage marriage, forced marriage and statutory rape.
"The AKP is pushing through a text which pardons those who marry the child that they raped," said an MP for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Ozgur Ozel. "Sexual abuse is a crime and there is no consent in it. This is what the AK Party fails to understand."
Mor Cati, a women's rights group that provides shelter to victims of domestic violence, said in a statement the "heinous" proposal would encourage a culture of violence against women and children and create a legal foundation for an increasing number of forced marriages.
The proposal comes after Turkey's top court in July made a controversial decision to annul a law that named sexual acts with children under the age of 15 "sexual abuse." The top court gave the Turkish parliament six months to rewrite the law according to its ruling.
The case came from a lower court that was concerned there was no distinction between sex crimes involving a teenager or a young child. According to Turkish media, the government plans to rewrite the law with stiffer penalties for rape cases in which the victims are under 12, and a separate category for those between 12 and 18.
cw/kl (AFP, AP, Reuters)