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Turkish opposition unsatisfied with changes to intelligence bill

The government has announced it will amend two articles in a controversial draft law on the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) following harsh reactions by the opposition, which maintains that the bill bestows extraordinary powers on MİT while rendering members of the intelligence organization almost untouchable before the law.

While discussions on the proposed bill continued in the Internal Affairs Commission on Sunday, deputies from the opposition parties took to the floor to express their concerns over the MİT law. Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Engin Altay reacted harshly to the bill and the insufficiency of the changes to the two articles, saying: “The draft law eliminates the accountability [of members of MİT] before the law. All laws on the issue will finally target you [those who are currently in power; the government] since it lacks sufficient legal grounds and accountability when we consider the results.”

The opposition also slammed the efforts by the government to appease fierce criticisms via two insufficient amendments to the bill, leaving unaddressed key issues such as accessing the private data of individuals, banks and companies and the fear among people of being profiled based on their beliefs, ethnic identities or the groups they are a part of.

CHP Gaziantep deputy Mehmet Şeker warned that the current draft law on MİT has the potential to cover up unsolved murders as members of MİT have no obligation to testify about their activities in court if the draft law is approved.

Opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) group Deputy Chairman Oktay Vural also reacted harshly to the MİT bill, saying: “The bill ignores the basic rules of the state. Why did the government propose the bill after the Dec. 17 graft operation [against a group of businessmen and the sons of ministers]? Its timing is meaningful. Turkey will lose if the law comes into effect. The current bill has the potential to harm the state of law.”

Drawing the ire of the opposition, the much debated bill proposes up to 12 years' imprisonment for journalists who publish highly classified MİT documents, which is seen as a way of punishing journalists who make public confidential documents. During Saturday's session of the parliamentary commission, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said two articles of the draft will be amended, including reducing the penalties for those who publish highly classified MİT documents.

Another article that the government plans to amend in the bill is about the prime minister leading MİT under the title of a newly planned National Intelligence Coordination Board (MİKK), instead of the MİT undersecretary as it used to be. There were thus plans for the prime minister to preside over the board. The decisions taken by MİKK, with the participation of the MİT secretary-general and the chief of intelligence of the General Staff, will be binding for all state institutions.

Commenting on the two introduced amendments in the MİT bill, Atalay said the government plans to reduce the severe penalties for those who publish MİT documents.

One of the articles in the draft MİT law which was criticized by the opposition is about MİT's right to hold talks with terrorist organizations that are considered a threat to national security as well as opening the way to bargaining with such terrorist groups. While the opposition has criticized the government for contributing to terrorism via negotiations with terrorist groups, this article is considered a move towards legitimizing the Oslo meetings between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that the Turkish army fought with for almost 35 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 30,000 soldiers. The criticisms also noted that MİT's role as a political agent will be legitimized with the bill.

The bill also authorizes the organization to conduct phone hackings without a court order as well as wiretapping the phone conversations of other MİT staff members. MİT is also authorized to wiretap phone conversations overseas upon the orders of the undersecretary.

According to data released by Atalay on MİT wiretappings, MİT is currently wiretapping 2,473 people with court permissions.

Gaining access to all kinds of data, including people, unions and banks, is another area of concern with regards to violations of privacy by the organization. The opposition also objected to the issue of removing prosecutors while cases are being heard as well as MİT having the right to obtain documents from court cases and investigations.

The submitted draft, which is now being discussed in the parliamentary commission, has many controversial articles, leading to concerns over the prospect of Turkey evolving into an intelligence state.

Commenters also pointed out that problems resulting from conflicts between MİT and the police in terms of authorities, as was the case last month due to truck cargo headed for Syria, will be removed with the newly introduced bill.

The draft, if approved by the commission, will end up in Parliament's General Council for discussion and voting. The government is expected to pass the law before Parliament closes due to the municipal elections.

Şeker said the draft law may result in the creation of new illegal organizations as in the past, such as Susurluk, a relationship between the government, the armed forces and organized crime which came to light after a car crash took place in the small town of Susurluk in 1996.

Şeker expressed his objection to the bill, saying: “With the current MİT bill, having talks with terrorist organizations is considered legal due to a wide definition of ‘national interests.' Does the recent legislation foresee the delivering of weapons and money to such organizations via the draft law? Is allowing trucks loaded with weapons and supplies to cross borders in order to support the Syrian opposition considered among MİT's authorizations? We have to make the limits of the bill clear.”

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