Lawmakers from Turkey’s ruling party have proposed a bill that would allow some sex abusers to marry their victims and evade punishment, under certain conditions, drawing protests from opposition parties.
The motion, put forward by members of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), passed a preliminary stage, but will need to a proper vote on Tuesday in parliament to become law.
The proposal would allow sentencing in cases of sexual abuse committed “without force, threat or trick” before November 16, 2016 to be indefinitely postponed if the perpetrator marries the victim.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the aim of the proposal was to remedy the situation of men who are in jail and are married to women under the age of 18 in a religious ceremony and with the consent of their family.
He rejected suggestions that the plan amounted to an “amnesty for rape”.
Civil marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in Turkey, but marriage between men and underage girls through religious ceremonies is not uncommon, particularly in rural parts.
“There are those who got married under age. They don’t know the law, then they have kids, the father goes to jail and the children are alone with their mother,” Yildirim told reporters, saying that left families “broken”.
“If there would be marriages like this from now on, they will in no way be tolerated,” he said, adding an estimated 3,000 families would be affected by the proposal and that the legislation would only be applied retrospectively.
Children in their early teens are known to have been married in religious ceremonies in Turkey.
Some argue that these marriages were not abusive, with the couple simply being unaware of the civil law.
Opponents of the proposal including lawmakers, dozens of rights groups, women’s associations and child NGOs criticised the legislation, claiming it was a normalisation of underage marriage.
“Sexual abuse is a crime and there is no consent in it. This is what the AK Party fails to understand,” Ozgur Ozel, a senior lawmaker with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) told a press conference.
The controversy became a top-trending topic on Twitter in Turkey, under the hashtag “rape cannot be legitimised”.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said suggestions that sex offenders could avoid punishment by marrying their victims were a deliberate distortion of the facts.
He said that it was the AK Party itself which had tightened laws on underage marriage since coming to power in 2002.
“Those who commit the crime of sexual abuse with force, threat, trick or any other reason that cripples the will cannot use this article,” Bozdag said on Twitter.
The controversy comes as Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union are hanging by a thread.
Some European leaders have called for accession talks to be frozen, citing what they describe as “a deterioration” in freedoms in the country which they say are taking it ever further from European norms.
The proposal, part of a wider package of planned changes, was accepted in an initial vote in parliament – where the AKP has a strong majority – late on Thursday.
But for it to become a law, the whole bill needs to be approved.
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