A Merciful State? Political Amnesties in Early Republican Turkey

By Senem Aslan
Submitted to Session P4891 (Law and Ideology in the Turkish Republic, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
When are states more likely to pardon political prisoners? What tangible and symbolic functions do political amnesties serve? What do political amnesties imply for state-society relations and state ideology? This paper seeks to answer these questions through an examination of political amnesties and the relationship between the state and political prisoners in the early Republican period in Turkey. While amnesties have been generally granted for political crimes in other countries, in Turkey amnesties rarely applied to political prisoners. This is despite the fact that Turkey is one of the top countries in the world for its very high frequency of amnesty laws and successive governments have been quite willing to enact amnesties for criminal prisoners to deal with an overburdened justice system. Nevertheless the single party period (1923-1946) stands as an exception. In the first decades of the Turkish Republic the state pardoned many of its opponents, including Kurdish and reactionary rebels, political exiles (150’ers), opposition journalists, and those accused of planning the assassination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is surprising because the single party era is considered to be one of Turkey’s most repressive periods when the Kemalist state did not tolerate any challenges to its rigid ideology. Focusing on the single-party period, this paper explores why intense political repression went hand in hand with political amnesties. I argue that the Turkish state used political amnesties as a tool to quell and coopt political opposition. Amnesties were symbolic displays of power that helped construct an image of the Kemalist regime as omnipotent and merciful. By compelling political prisoners to publicly acknowledge their past crime, amnesties were meant to weaken the legitimacy of the opposition’s political claims and assure their withdrawal from political contention. The research of this paper is mainly based on primary sources, such as parliamentary records, memoirs, and archival documents.