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'Erdogan's Brownshirts' | Turkey’s president moves to empower night watchmen (bekçiler)

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

A revived nighttime security force in Turkey may soon get the same powers as regular police, drawing protest from lawmakers and civil rights advocates.

In 2016, the Turkish government reinstated a nighttime security force known as "bekçiler," (plural for bekçi) or watchmen, to support police officers in maintaining public safety in urban neighborhoods.

Tasked with patrolling streets and calling police officers when needed, the bekçi forces have acted as a complementary security force and have grown to more than 21,000 male and female officers.

Earlier in January 2020, a proposal submitted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to expand the bekçis' powers to include authorities normally retained by police officers, such as conducting body searches and detaining suspects. The proposal is currently being reviewed by AKP and Nationalist Movement Party lawmakers who appear positioned to pass the bill in a move that has drawn protest from opposition politicians and civil rights advocates.

Ali Oztunc, a deputy with the main opposition Republican People’s Party, recently argued the proposal not only created insufficient entrance exams, requiring applicants have completed only a middle school education, but also gave bekçis powers that could easily be abused.

“The seventh article of the bill grants all police authority to the watchmen. In that case, what is the need for police?” Oztunc asked, as reported by Gazete Duvar. “The watchmen would be granted the right to search with their hands and pat people down. Will a watchman that sees a female student at midnight search her with his hands? This article is unacceptable and needs to be amended. ... They are creating a parallel police force.”

Among the powers to be granted to bekçis are the authority to intervene in incidents, to guard and handle crime scene evidence, to carry guns and conduct identity checks. The bekçis have already been carrying out some of these activities, at times giving rise to legal disputes.

The parliamentary internal affairs commission has so far approved nine of the 18 articles in the bill since it began reviewing the proposal Wednesday.

Neighborhood watchmen on their shift

Mehmet Mus, the AKP deputy chair who submitted the proposal, has pitched it as a beneficial jobs-creation program amid an ongoing economic downturn in Turkey.

“Recently, we have created a serious level of employment regarding the watchmen who patrol markets and districts,” he said.

Volkan Gultekin, a lawyer and member of the Izmir Bar Association, said the proposal raises numerous issues, including expanding the right to use force — a power currently reserved for the police, coast guard, customs officers and gendarmerie, who mostly function as rural police.

“I don't understand why these powers are given to bekçis,” Gultekin told Al-Monitor. “Police units, organized everywhere, can do the same things.”

He noted the bill would allow bekçis to gather evidence from crime scenes, an authority not extended to police and gendarmerie without a judicial investigation or by a prosecutor’s orders. Gultekin added that police officers need “reasonable suspicion” to search individuals while the proposal does not put forth the same requirement for bekçis.

Gultekin highlighted other gaps in the proposal that left questions regarding whether bekçis will follow legal procedures and identify themselves as state officers when stopping people and whether individuals will be informed of their right to remain silent.

“We cannot expect bekçis, who do not have the same professional training as police forces, to follow this procedure,” Gultekin said.

Bekçi forces have traditionally served as neighborhood watchmen in Turkey. The practice was abolished in 2008, when the 8,000 bekçis in service at the time were absorbed into the regular police force. In 2016, the AKP reinstated the bekçi force, hiring an initial group of about 2,400 officers to patrol the southeastern Kurdish-majority cities of Sirnak, Hakkari, Urfa, Mardin and Diyarbakir — following military operations to eradicate militants linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Sinem Adar, a research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said the deployment of bekçis as “actors in micro-governance” is not new.

“Bekçis were used to maintain control during the warfare in the 1990s between the Turkish army and the PKK,” Adar told Al-Monitor. “What is new since 2016 has been the gradual expansion of this earlier-used function of bekçis to the entire country.”

This expansion has led to several court cases in which Turkish citizens challenged the legal authority of bekçis to conduct ID checks. Two recent court decisions — one in Izmir and the other in Mardin — ruled bekçis did not have such powers, though this may now change.

Some Turkish citizens have expressed feeling safer under the watch of bekçis, who patrol neighborhoods in groups and make their presence known by blowing whistles throughout the night.

Others see them as a hassle for conducting arbitrary ID checks on individuals out for an evening stroll.

Yet after a string of bombings in the mid-2010s and a 2016 coup attempt that left about 250 people dead and many more traumatized, bekçi forces are generally seen as upholding public safety and can often be found sitting inside taxi kiosks chatting with drivers late into the night. Still, Adar said their increasing numbers and powers should be interpreted in the context of a growing security regime under the Turkish state.

“One can also consider these developments as efforts to redistribute means of violence within the state apparatus with two potentially contradictory implications: empowering the police force, while at the same time giving expansive powers to a sub-unit within it to govern daily life at the neighborhood level,” said Adar.

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