Turkey’s government arms night watchmen, sparking parliament brawl

Turkey’s parliament has passed a controversial law arming night watchmen, also known as neighbourhood guards, Anadolu news agency said on Thursday. 

The guards will be employed within the police and gendarmerie agencies to assist the general law enforcement officers. They will be armed with pistols and will be authorised to demand identification and stop and search citizens, according to the legislation, which was drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with support from its parliamentary allies the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Watchmen had patrolled Turkey’s markets and neighbourhoods for decades armed with batons and whistles, until the AKP abolished the organisation in 2008.

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke of his desire to “hear the watchmen’s whistles again at night” shortly after his government survived an attempted coup in the summer of 2016. Months later, the Interior Ministry set out plans to revive the institution, employing thousands of recruits in 2017 and around 10,000 in subsequent years. 

The further arming and empowerment of the force has raised fears that the group will be used to enhance the Turkish leader’s authoritarian leadership. Erdoğan’s political opponents are depicting the initiative as an attempt to form a new and loyal paramilitary force.

A brawl broke out in the Turkish parliament on Tuesday between lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and MHP during a debate over the law to arm the watchmen. 

A quarrel quickly descended into a fistfight as Olcay Kılavuz, a lawmaker from the MHP, punched CHP group deputy chair Özgür Özel and Ulaş Karasu, another CHP lawmaker, after Özel accused AKP members of interrupting their speeches, Hürriyet Daily News said. 

Other lawmakers intervened to break up the fight.

The legislation means that the watchmen will have the authority to use their weapons if necessary and they will hand detained people over to police. 

On Monday, the Guardian said that the new generation of guards are mostly younger men with links to the youth wing of Erdoğan’s AKP.

The AKP will choose how and where the watchmen will be deployed and they could feel subordinated to its political will, especially during a period of high unemployment, five senior members of the CHP said in a statement to the parliamentary commission.

Anadolu said that guards will need to pass an entrance and meet criteria over education, age, health and fitness. Basic training will take at least three months, and full training will take between one and two years. 

The guards will report places where drugs are suspected to be manufactured, sold or used, or where illegal gambling or prostitution is taking place to the police. They will detain people suspected of disturbing the peace and will help to uphold traffic laws. They will also have public safety duties during emergencies such as floods and fires, and concerning animals. 

The guards will typically work 40 hours per week and will have a retirement age of 60. 

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