Turkey passes controversial bill granting increased powers to neighbourhood watchmen

Turkey passes controversial bill granting increased powers to neighbourhood watchmen
A new law granting 'nightwatchmen', who patrol neighbourhoods to report crimes and disturbances, almost the same powers as police, with critics accusing Erdogan of attempting to build a loyal 'militia'.
2 min read
Erdogan's government revived the force following a failed coup attempt in 2016 [Twitter]
Turkey's parliament passed a controversial bill on Wednesday giving neighbourhood patrols greater powers, with critics accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to build a loyal "militia".

The new law gives "nightwatchmen", who walk the streets at night to report burglaries and disturbances, almost the same powers as police.

They will now be allowed to carry firearms and have the powers to stop vehicles, carry out ID checks and conduct body searches. The guards cannot arrest or interrogate suspects.

With more than 28,000 members, now including women, the nightwatchmen institution - which is attached to the interior ministry and dates back more than 100 years - has been revived by Erdogan's government after an attempted coup in July 2016 against Erdogan.

The watchmen, known as “bekci,” traditionally guarded neighbourhoods and parks and were armed only with batons and whistles. The force was abolished and folded into the police in 2008.

The bill's debate in parliament triggered heated exchanges, with deputies even coming to blows during a feisty session on Tuesday.

Erdogan's AKP party, which put forward the bill, says the new rules will enable the nightwatchmen to more effectively help law enforcement by thwarting burglaries and preventing assaults on the streets.

In old Turkish films the guards are portrayed as benevolent uncles patrolling the streets with a whistle between their lips, on the lookout for troublemakers. 

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But the opposition accused Erdogan of authoritarianism by empowering a loyal and under-qualified armed force that will lead to human rights violations and a further erosion of freedoms.

"They are using the institution of nightwatchmen to set up a militia," Mahir Polat from the main opposition CHP party said on Tuesday, adding the police should be reinforced if needed.

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