Turkey's nightwatchmen in Erdogan's service

Their new powers are comparable to those of the police: they can be armed and arrest people
Police officers in Istanbul, Turkey

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Police officers in Istanbul, Turkey

Attached to the Turkish Ministry of the Interior, and with a history of more than 100 years, the institution of the nightwatchmen -bekçiler, in Turkish- has come to the fore this week when the parliament of the Eurasian nation approved a bill that gives it more powers, comparable to the country's police force. For example, they will now be able to report robberies and riots, an attribution that until then was exclusive to the security forces. They will also be able to carry firearms and pursue, identify and arrest people. "Nightwatchmen will report to the Police the places where drugs are suspected to be manufactured, sold or used, or where illegal gambling or prostitution is taking place. They will arrest people suspected of disturbing the peace and help maintain traffic laws," said Ahval News. The new rules, as explained in The National, will allow members of this entity "to help the police more effectively by thwarting robberies and preventing assaults in the streets. 

However, the Turkish opposition believes that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to establish a loyal armed force, a militia, in an authoritarian gesture. In fact, the tension over the approval of this law is such that, in Tuesday's debate in the House on this law, a fight broke out between the deputies of the main opposition political formation, the People's Republican Party (CHP), and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The dispute quickly turned into a fistfight when Olcay Kılavuz, an MHP legislator, beat CHP Vice President Özgür Özel and Ulaş Karasu, another CHP legislator, after Özel accused AKP members of disrupting his speeches, according to the Hürriyet Daily News.

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, en Ankara, el 9 de junio de 2020
PHOTO/Oficina de prensa presidencial turca via REUTERS - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 9 June 2020

"They are using the vigilante institution to establish a militia of their own," the CHP's Mahir Polat has denounced. In addition, they believe that the 40-hour programme that has been set up to train members in firearms is not "suitable" for an auxiliary security force. They also describe the 90-day training plan they receive before starting their service as insufficient. "Their training is not sufficient and this will put our citizens at risk. The AKP is trying to create its own law enforcement and control citizens with the pressure of the nightwatchmen," Polat added. "If we needed more law enforcement officers, the government could have strengthened the police or the gendarmerie," he said.

Critical voices even compare the Bekçiler with their new powers to Iran's Basij militia, which is a voluntary paramilitary force loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and dependent on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). This Iranian militia has been repeatedly accused of repressing demonstrators in anti-government protests and sometimes under abuse of power. Lüftü Türkkan of the opposition political group Iyi said that a "night horror" had begun in Turkey and that it was a "reckless" decision.

Oficiales de Policía bloquean una carretera hacia la Plaza Taksim durante las protestas del Día de Mayo en Estambul, Turquía
PHOTO/AP - Police officers block a road to Taksim Square during May Day protests in Istanbul, Turkey

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have joined in the criticism. The director of the office in Turkey, Emma Sinclair-Webb, said that "the adoption of a law that increases the powers of community agents to intervene in place of the regular police is a worrying demonstration of the increasing securitisation of all aspects of life in the country". "We are also particularly concerned about the lack of oversight mechanisms to regulate these community officers and hold them accountable when they abuse their powers. There is already a widespread culture of police impunity, and oversight of these officers is even more confusing and vague than it is for regular police," she warned, recalling that a total of 403 people have been killed by Turkish police between 2009 and 2017, according to data from the Baran Tursun Foundation collected by The Guardian.

In fact, the Bekçiler have already been accused of extrapolating from their duties on more than one occasion. Analyst Hamdi Firat Buyuk recalls in Balkan Insight how on May 23rd, a young man was beaten by the "night watchmen" when he was throwing out the garbage, apparently without a justified reason. They also attacked his family with tear gas.

Los críticos del proyecto de ley de los vigilantes nocturnos turcos acusan al presidente Recep Tayyip Erdogan de querer construir una “milicia” leal
AFP/ADEM ALTAN - Critics of the Turkish Nightwatchmens Bill accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to build a loyal "militia

The entity, which currently includes more than 28,000 citizens, has grown considerably since the attempted coup in July 2016, according to RTL. The programme had been suspended in 2008. The current generation of "night watchmen" consists mostly of males with links to the youth wing of the AKP, headed by the country's president, with a low level of education: most of its members have only elementary school qualifications.