These forces are ostensibly created for maintaining internal security and public order. However, in practice, such loyalist forces have been sweepingly used to suppress political opponents or to serve as counterbalancing forces to protect the regime against coups, rather than fighting crimes or law enforcement. In this respect, the reinstatement of the neighborhood watchmen recruitment and the recent expansion of their powers constitutes a further step in the transformation of the structure and functioning of the internal security apparatus in Turkey in line with the security concerns of the increasingly autocratic Erdogan and the AKP regime, who would like to secure their survival against their perceived enemies, including political opponents, such as leftists, Gulenists, and Kurdish activists, as well as potential coup plotters inside the formal security apparatus.
Indeed, during Turkey’s authoritarian transformation which further crystallized following the AKP’s victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections, especially following the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013 which unraveled the public outcry against AKP’s increasingly authoritarian policies, several transformations happened with critical implications for policing and internal security structure in Turkey.
Following major corruption charges against senior members of the AKP government in December 2013, and particularly after the failed coup attempt of July 2016, the ruling AKP government launched mass purges in the National Police, which resulted in the mass dismissals of about thirty three thousand police officers over their alleged links to Gulenists, the former ally of AKP who have been since then criminalized as a national security threat in Turkey.
In March 2015, a new Domestic Security Bill was passed into law which allocated expanded powers to the police, including a broader authority to use weapons at protest sites, and the authority to more easily search homes and wiretap telephones without obtaining a search warrant. The bill also allowed the government to shut down the Turkish National Police Academy, which prepared students for command roles in the Turkish National Police, and the Police Colleges established to lead to matriculation at the Police Academy.
Instead, a new Police Supervisor Training Center (Polis Amirleri Egitim Merkezi, or PAEM) was established to train prospective commanding officers for the national police. Many in the opposition alleged that the goal of these changes in police training was to ensure government’s control over the allocation of police jobs to their supporters and to claim the loyalty of police cadres graduating from the newly established police training centers.
Moreover, pro-government paramilitary structures such as People’s Special Forces (Halk Özel Harekat, or HÖH) and the notorious private security contractor firm SADAT (International Defense Consulting), whose founder was a top advisor to President Erdogan, have gained increasing visibility in Turkey as possible tools of regime protection following the failed coup of July 2016. Indeed, multiple Turkish language and foreign media outlets reported eyewitness accounts that members of the pro-AKP armed groups, including SADAT and People’s Special Forces, were involved in the killing of civilians and lynching of the alleged coup-plotters on the night of the failed coup attempt.
The reinstatement of the neighborhood watchmen system and the introduction of legislative changes furnishing the guards with greater coercive powers just represents another layer in the reconfiguration of the internal security apparatus in Turkey in line with the AKP and Erdogan’s concern with maintaining their political survival.
Empowered neighborhood watchmen, together with other pro-government paramilitary groups, might serve as a separate armed force loyal to Erdogan, allowing him to balance against other formal security forces, including the military and the police, enabling him to secure his political and personal survival against another coup attempt, which Erdogan is still worried about.
With the introduction of legally-vague provisions which would enable the guard members to bear firearms, to stop and search citizens on “reasonable ground” and “to take necessary measures against demonstrations and marches that might disrupt public order”, the expanded and strengthened neighborhood watchmen also might be used by the AKP government to further monitor and suppress political opponents under the pretext of public security and combating crimes.
Moreover, the new duties granted to the neighborhood watchmen by the new legislation, including reporting suspected individuals or places to the police, would increase the state-sanctioned surveillance of public life under the pretext of crime prevention, creating concerns among the opposition that the night watchmen might easily turn into a copy of the Iran’s Basij militia, a loyalist paramilitary force responsible for suppressing dissent and policing morals under the Iranian regime.
Given the opposition claims that the neighborhood guards are mostly recruited among the young men affiliated with the youth wing of the AKP and the recent reports of violence towards citizens, empowered neighborhood watchmen, as a potential loyalist group of armed auxiliaries, are likely to bring further abuse and oppression of anyone perceived as the enemy of the AKP and the Erdogan regime, wreaking more havoc on the already suffering human rights and civil liberties in Turkey.Print