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Turkey’s death penalty politics

If murder is wrong (and we all agree that it is) then how can state-sanctioned murder be justified by saying that this is a way of seeking justice?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

On Thursday, Bangladesh executed an opposition leader (in a so-called criminal court which was more like an improvisational theatre) hours after the Supreme Court rejected his last-minute appeal, officials said. The death threatened to spark new violence ahead of national elections next month.

Human rights organizations made calls to Bangladesh before and after the execution and the U.N. stated that the organization is against the death penalty. Turkey has voiced its concern over the “possible execution” of a death sentence against an Islamist leader convicted of war crimes in Bangladesh, stressing that such a penalty would “not heal the wounds of the past.”

“We are concerned about the possible execution of a death sentence against the Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Abdul Quader Mollah. We are concerned that the execution of this penalty will lead to an escalation of tension in Bangladesh,” the Foreign Ministry said in a written statement issued late in the day on Dec. 11. “Turkey is of the conviction that the wounds of the past cannot be healed with these methods, and social reconciliation cannot be provided this way,” it said. Even Prime Minister Erdoğan made a call to Dhaka to voice his concerns over the planned execution, stressing this would only further complicate domestic problems within Bangladesh.

Hours after the statement was released, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court cleared the way on Dec. 12 for the execution of Mollah after it rejected a last-minute appeal filed by his lawyers even though he had his last appeal right and Mollah was hanged at 10:01 p.m. local time on Thursday. It wasn’t the decision of a sovereign court but the decision was apparently politically motivated as the result of the Bangladeshi (then East Pakistan) peoples quest for independence from Pakistan in 1971 and Jamaat-e Islami opposing it. Jamaat-e Islami supported Muslim unity in the early 1970s and asserted that such a division would only bring Bangladeshi Muslims under the influence of India (which turned out to be true in the following years).
Mollah's Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, immediately called for a nation wide general strike on Sunday. The execution complicates an already critical political situation in Bangladesh, where the opposition has carried out violent protests for weeks demanding an independent caretaker government to oversee the general election set for Jan. 5.

Concern in Turkey

The execution was initially planned for the Dec. 10 but had to be postponed because of a Twitter-storm, started by Turkish “tweeters.” On Dec. 10, 298,000 tweets supported the hashtag “#stopexecutionBangladesh” and 215,000 of these tweets belonged to Turkish Twitter users, followed by approximately 9,000 other tweets and England with 7,800 tweets. Turkish humanitarian aid organizations and the Turkish news agency Anatolian Agency took an active role in trying to stop the execution. This wasn’t Turkey’s first attempt to stop the executions in Bangladesh: Last December, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote a letter to Bangladesh’s President Zillur Rahman, asking for a suspension of the Tribunal, with forgiveness for those accused of war crimes in Bangladesh. Gul requested clemency for Ghulam Azam and the other accused, saying they are too old to stand trial and expressed his concern that it might cause a civil war in Bangladesh.

If murder is wrong (and we all agree that it is) then how can state-sanctioned murder be justified by saying that this is a way of seeking justice?

Ceylan Ozbudak

This letter not only created diplomatic tension between the two countries, it also conveyed a message showing a Muslim majority country’s reluctance to support war crime trials. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has never come forward to support the war crimes trial; so when Turkey, being the chair of the OIC, declared its opposition to the war crimes trial, the letter was perceived as a first response from a Muslim majority country. Following these events, Turkish Ambassador in Dhaka Hüseyin Muftuoglu visited Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Mon on June 6, 2013, and said, “Turkey is against the death penalty but it respects any independent court decision.” For many, the most surprising part of all this was this came from a country which once executed its own Prime Minister, along with 50 other politicized figures.

This intervention also came from a country, which did not execute its terrorist leader (Abdullah Öcalan), who is responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 people as a result of PKK terrorism in Turkey. The last execution that took place in Turkey was in 1984, and on Jan. 9 2004, Turkey abolished capital punishment after signing Protocol Six of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Turkish parliament had already voted to abolish the death penalty in peacetime back in August of 2002. Even though the rage against Öcalan was great among the Turkish nation at the time of his capture, commuting his sentence of death to life imprisonment did not create much backlash in the public.

Actions that qualify as atrocities

There are many arguments about the death penalty between those who are in favor of it and those who are against it. The supporters generally believe that only the most brutal punishment will stop people from attempting crimes and only this maximum punishment could be equal to the crimes they committed; they also argue that only the death penalty will satisfy the public conscience and secure the public trust in the strength of the rule of law. Those who are against it say that the death penalty is contrary to human rights and has no deterrent power. It is clearly against the International Declaration of Human Rights Article Five and organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are working against the death penalty across the world.

I have frequently said that foreign or domestic policy is not radically different than individual relations; we cannot expect to create a happy society through actions that we would normally qualify as atrocities. If murder is wrong (and we all agree that it is) then how can state-sanctioned murder be justified by saying that this is a way of seeking justice? The only time that using lethal force against another is truly justifiable is in self-defence. If you "willfully and with intent" kill another person, then it's murder. You cannot, in all good conscience, say that murder is wrong, and then give permission for one person to kill another because that person committed a crime. The execution of someone is the premeditated and deliberate killing of that person, and therefore it's also murder. In Islam, there is retaliation, but in the same verse of the Qur'an where Allah talks about retaliation, Allah says “But if someone is absolved by his brother, blood-money should be claimed with correctness and paid with goodwill. That is an easement and a mercy from your Lord (Surat al-Baqara, 178).” In another verse Allah says “The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah. Certainly He does not love wrongdoers (Surat al-Shu’ra, 199).” As these verses from the Qur’an clearly show, the important thing is to forgive and reform. The death penalty not only does away with the religious duty of forgiveness, it also eliminates any possibility of reformation and reintegration in society.

Thus it is clear that the number of countries that refuse to accept that capital punishment is a violation of human rights, and therefore should be subject to a ban under international law, is declining. Yet some continue to assert that it is a matter for national criminal justice policy to be determined by the political, social and cultural circumstances of each country: indeed, several of them at different times have characterized such resolutions as a form of cultural imperialism, dictating a particular set of Western values. Amongst them are those Muslim states that base their criminal justice system on Islamic law. However, a scholar with deep knowledge of the Muslim faith, the human rights criminal lawyer M.Cherif Bassiouni, has argued that there is nothing in the Qur'an or the Sunnah that requires the death penalty; retaliation is optional, not mandatory. There is much debate among the different schools of jurisprudence as to whether the Qur'an and the Sunna are to be interpreted literally, or on the basis of the intent and purpose of the text or both. Bassiouni’s view is that the interpretation of the Qur'an has been dominated by traditionalists and fundamentalists, who are in the main intransigent and literalistic, whereas the few secular reformists and forward thinking traditionalists would emphasize the need to interpret the scripture in the light of scientific knowledge and with the Islamic emphasis on mercy in order to create a just and humane society.

If we wish to create a truly just and equitable society, we would be better served in answering the call of mercy, while at the same time recognizing that there are crimes of such a heinous nature that they merit punishment with lifetime incarceration, especially when the perpetrator of said heinous crimes constitutes a legitimate danger to the safety of one and all. In that way, we can best serve the cause of justice while still remaining true to our values; the time has come to acknowledge that capital punishment is an outmoded vestige of a more uncivilized era, and that it no longer serves the interests of justice.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.