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Turkey’s ruling party passes neighborhood watchmen bill, alarming opposition

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Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Thursday granted wider powers to a nighttime neighborhood watchmen force that dates back to the Ottoman era, drawing opposition warnings of potential rights violations as personnel with limited training join the security forces.

The watchmen were revived by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and began patrolling urban streets in 2017, a year after an attempted military coup.

Under the law, pushed through parliament overnight by Erdoğan’s ruling AKP, they will have the authority to demand people identify themselves, use force and carry weapons and apprehend suspects.

“You cannot give someone a gun and send them into the street with broad authority after 40 days of training,” Engin Altay, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said last week.

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a lawmaker from the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), also criticized the level of watchmen’s education, saying they would only have a few hours of training regarding human rights.

“This law is not about protecting the people or the district. It is a law to protect the state from the people,” he said in a speech in parliament during debate on the law, warning of a rise in violent incidents involving security forces.

The return of the neighborhood watchmen coincided with upheaval following the failed 2016 coup. Turkey has jailed tens of thousands of people and suspended or sacked 150,000 civil servants and security personnel in what critics call a crackdown on dissent and Ankara says is necessitated by security threats.

Police data show that last year the number of police officers in Turkey rose 7.9 percent to more than 260,000, with the number of neighborhood watchmen nearly doubling to more than 21,000. This year the number of watchmen is set to rise to 30,000, according to one AKP deputy.

The Interior Ministry has defended the increased role given to neighborhood watchmen, saying the daily average of home burglaries nationwide had fallen by 47 percent to 151 since the force was revitalized.

It said watchmen undergo three months of training and then have two months of practical training, with 20 percent of them being university graduates.

Erdoğan’s AKP has 291 seats in the 600 seat assembly and had a comfortable majority to pass the legislation with the 46 deputies of its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies.

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