March 16, 2016 / 11:48 AM / 2 years ago

Turkey's Erdogan pushes parliament to make praise of violent acts a 'terror crime'

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan pressed Turkey’s parliament on Wednesday to broaden an anti-terrorism law without delay, saying those who support killers of innocent people were no different from terrorists themselves.

His comments, which drew swift criticism from rights groups, followed the deaths of 37 people in a suicide bombing in Ankara on Sunday that security officials blamed on Kurdish militants. It was the second such attack in the capital in a month.

Rights advocates fear that anti-terrorism laws already used to detain academics and opposition journalists will now be used in courts to stifle discussion of issues such as a Kurdish conflict in the media and on other public platforms.

“Those who support directly or indirectly people who destroy innocent lives are not in the slightest different from terrorists,” Erdogan said in a speech. “We must immediately revise the definition of terror and terrorist. In line with this new definition, we must immediately change the penal code.”

Western states are concerned about a wave of bombings in Turkey, blamed on Islamic State or Kurdish militants, as they consider Ankara an important ally in containing warfare in neighboring Syria and Iraq. But at the same time, they have criticized the NATO ally and EU aspirant’s human rights record, raising questions about the independence of Turkey’s judiciary.

A legal expert in the ruling AK Party told Reuters the government aimed to “broaden the extent” of the anti-terror law.

“A man may not have participated directly in terrorist acts but may have supported them ideologically. This may not be a full terror crime, but a degree of terror crime,” he said.

Police detained 20 suspects, including lawyers, in an Istanbul operation targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is accused of carrying out the Ankara bombing, state-run Anadolu Agency said.

On Tuesday an Istanbul court detained three academics pending trial on charges of “terrorist propaganda” after they publicly read a declaration urging an to end military operations in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

‘SCARY AND WRONG’

A Briton, who has lived in Turkey for decades and had gone to the court to show support for the academics, was detained overnight for alleged terrorism offences.

“I was released by the court but they’re going to deport me now,” Chris Stephenson, a teacher at Bilgi University, told local media after his release. “This is very scary and wrong.”

Stephenson was escorted to a plane to London by the Turkish police, an airport source said. “I am being deported at the airport. Tomorrow an application will be submitted to the administrative court for my return,” Stephenson tweeted.

His lawyer, Cemal Polat, confirmed that he would appeal against what he called an “unlawful and unreasonable” deportation decision.

Stephenson, whom Polat said has been living in Turkey since 1991 and is married to a Turk, was one of more than 1,000 academics who signed a petition this year criticizing military action in the southeast.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she was appalled at the prospect of a widening of the definition of terrorism. “It completely violates Turkey’s international obligations and law,” she said

More than 40,000 people have been killed since 1984 in an insurgency by Kurdish militants seeking autonomy. A ceasefire broke down in July, unleashing some of the worst violence in the history of the conflict.

The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich

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