Neoliberal Penality and State Legitimacy: Politics of Amnesty in Turkey during the AKP Period

By Yıldırım, İrem; Kuyucu, Tuna | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Neoliberal Penality and State Legitimacy: Politics of Amnesty in Turkey during the AKP Period


Yıldırım, İrem, Kuyucu, Tuna, Law & Society Review


Since 2002, the year when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, the Turkish criminal justice system has undergone major transformations. Between 2002 and 2016, the number of incarcerated people increased from around 60,000 to more than 187,000, raising the rate of incarceration from 85 to 238 per 100,000 people, which places Turkey on fifth place among European countries in terms of incarceration rate (İnternational Centre for Prison Studies 2016; Turkish Statistical Institute 2016) (see Table 1). Interestingly, this upward trend has stayed more or less constant during the entire period that AKP has governed the country, irrespective of the dose of authoritarianism that the party has used, which significantly increased after 2009. To cope with this dramatic rise, the government built 105 new prisons, appointed more than 5,000 new judges and prosecutors and institutionalized new mechanisms of control, such as probation and electronic surveillance of released criminals, for the first time in the county's history.1 However, none of these measures has conclusively resolved the recurring twin problems of the criminal justice system-i.e., overpopulation of prisons and very heavy workload of courts. A recent report shows that despite new prison construction there are currently only 565 beds available for new prisoners.2 Moreover, the number of cases brought to courts increased from 4.7 million in 2,000 to 6.5 million in 2012. Turkish judges are responsible for 1,078 cases annually whereas the average in European countries is only 200 (Ministry of Justice 2011:22).

The traditional mechanism of dealing with the overburdened criminal justice system and overcrowded prisons in Turkey has been the issuance of general amnesties for people convicted of criminal offences. In fact, with 157 amnesties since 1923, 11 of which were general amnesties, the country tops the world in the number of amnesties passed (Ankara Chamber of Commerce 2004; Cengiz and Gazialem 2000).3 Amnesty, in a sense, acted as an "emergency button" to be utilized whenever the system got clogged (Kocasakal 2010: 94). Even though the surge in incarceration rates since 2002 exacerbated the systemic challenges to the criminal justice system, the AKP has strongly rejected amnesty as a policy of alleviating these structural problems. Leading party members have repeatedly claimed that the state will no longer grant amnesty to criminals and that a new general amnesty is entirely out of question. As the founder and the uncontested leader of the party, Mr. Erdogan has stated during his time as Prime Minister (PM), "For a long time, I've been saying that there is no such thing as general amnesty on our agenda. I have said it so many times.. .There is no such thing, definitely not".4

What makes the Turkish experience with amnesty more interesting is the fact that even though amnesty is granted across the world almost exclusively for "political crimes," particularly during periods of regime transition or collapse (Lessa and Payne 2012; Mallinder 2008; Popkin and Bhuta 1999), Turkish amnesties have rarely covered political crimes, or "crimes against the state" until the AKP period.5 AKP's approach, however, reverses this past trend and stresses that the state can only "pardon" offences committed against itself-i.e., political crimes and should not interfere when the criminal act concerns another person's right to life or property. Since the government has not granted any form of amnesty yet, AKP's approval of political amnesty remains so far at the discursive level. However, we argue that this discursive shift regarding political amnesty is significant because it amounts to a redefinition of the politically legitimate boundaries of amnesty, which makes it quite likely for a political amnesty to be issued in the future.

In this article, we use the changes in the Turkish amnesty field to understand how a developing country government committed to a "tough-on-crime" agenda manages the increasing tension between the instrumental requirements of its overburdened criminal justice system and its ideological and political commitment to increased punitiveness. …

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