Originally published under the title “Turkey: Child Rapists to Go Free, Journalists Not?”
Turkey, officially, is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. But its ruling Islamist party has drafted a bill that would release about 3,000 men who married children, including men who raped them. Public uproar has only convinced the ruling conservative Muslim lawmakers to consider revising the bill.
Muslims in general have a confused mind about the permissible age for marriage. The Quran does not mention a specific minimum age. But most Muslims believe that their prophet, Mohammad, married Aisha when the bride was nine years old — although there are some sources that claim the marriage took place when Aisha was 19 or 20 years of age. Some modern sources of Islamic authority, however, especially Wahhabi, have in recent years issued “extreme” fatwas. In 2011, Salih bin Fawzan, a prominent cleric and member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council, issued a fatwa asserting that there is no minimum age for marriage and that girls can be married “even if they are in the cradle.”
In 2014, the Saudi Grand Mufti allowed marriages with girls under 15 and avoided mentioning a minimum age. Turkish conservatives are no exception to having an inclination to marry little girls.
Earlier in 2016, the head of a department of the Supreme Court of Appeals revealed that nearly 3,000 marriages were registered between female victims of sexual abuse, including rape, and their assailants. Speaking to a parliamentary commission, the senior judge testified that children between the ages of five and 18 could be subjected to sexual abuse in the country, and that girls between the ages of 12 and 15 were more easily tricked by abusers. He mentioned a particular case in which three men kidnapped and raped a girl, then one of them married her and the sentences for all three were lifted.
The government’s motion, now suspended in parliament, stipulates that for any crime of sexual abuse committed before November 16, in the event of a subsequent marriage between the victim and the convict, the announcement of the verdict will be deferred, and if there has already been a verdict, the sentencing will be deferred. If the bill passes, child sexual abusers currently in jail will be released.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag defends the bill, saying that “it addresses problems stemming from a reality of religious marriages” taking place before the legal age of marriage.
In Turkey, marriage under the age of 17 is illegal. Children aged 16 can marry subject to a court ruling. But in practice, thousands of children marry, mostly after cases of rape and their families’ consent. When a child girl gives birth, hospital authorities are obliged to notify law enforcement for legal proceedings, with prison sentences of up to 16 years.
According to official statistics, a total of 482,908 children were married off by their families in the past decade. In 2015 alone, 18,033 female children gave birth, including 244 girls under 15. The number of recorded child abuse cases rose from 5,730 in 2005 to 16,957 in 2015.
Under pressure, the government on November 20 showed signs of retreat. The ruling Islamists said they were working on a revision of the bill; the final vote had been scheduled to be held on November 22. However the bill ends up, it is problematic. In its proposed form, jurists warned the proposed motion did not include a minimum age for the victims. If the government had gone ahead with its plans, a 60-year-old man who married a 12-year-old girl through religious procedures would benefit from the amnesty.
The Turkish controversy reflects a rather bad habit among conservative Muslims.
The Turkey’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim once said in an interview that he transferred from his university because he feared to “go off the path” after seeing that male and female students at his university were sitting next to each other on benches. In a typically Islamist thinking, former President Abdullah Gul, co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party and the closest political ally (until 2014) of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, married his wife when she was 15 years old and he 30 years old.
For the conservative Turkish mind set, child abuse whitewashed by a religious marriage is more pardonable, but not journalistic dissent.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.