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[OPINION] Decree Laws as a means of Revival of the “Civil Death” in Turkey


Hunger strike

Nuriye G. (academic) and Semih Ö. (teacher) are just two of the victims fired by the decree laws introduced under the state of emergency. Although it remains highly uncertain what they can achieve against an unconcerned government they did go on a hunger strike to get back their job.

Hunger strike, as Russell identifies in her seminal book, Hunger: An Unnatural History, “an established cultural form of seeking justice in the 20th Century”, is generally preferred by those who are from leftist tradition. In conservative side of the political divide, however, available evidence reveals that access to food and nutrition holds much more importance than hunger. Therefore, followers of the Erdoğan approached hunger strike in question with some religious comment.[1]

But, the court in Ankara did more than this: Nuriye and Semih, in 76th day of their strike, were detained on 23rd May, 2017 with the following justification: “in case they are not arrested, they could harm the operability of the justice!” Such reasoning was likely the first in judicial history of Turkey.[2]

At present, Nuriye and Semih still decisively continue the hunger strike in prison. Unless any good progress is achieved, ultimately they likely will die. Interestingly, that seems to be what Erdoğan really wants to see. His latest interviews with both national and foreign media gives some clue of his firm stance against such victims of the state of emergency.

How could there be such an approach?

In an exclusive interview with BBC World on 14th of July, Zainab Badawi asked Turkish President Erdoğan about nearly 200,000 Turkish citizens who are detained, sacked or suspended from their jobs following the failed coup.

How are they going to survive if they’ve lost their jobs? They also have dependents; they have elderly relatives, children […] Does the Turkish government provided with social security payments? Because they have been stripped of their livelihoods. What happens to their families if they can’t work again?

By the way, as a fine coincidence, Zainab Badawi had formulated our recent Disturbing Questions into one genius question indeed.

Erdoğan replied with a mocking tone: “For God sake! How could there be such an approach? […] The state does not have to look after everyone forever. Because these people are members of a terrorist organization. Why should the state feed those who are members of terrorist organization?”

No surprise. If we translate these words, Erdoğan means to say: we intend to kill them all, but you ask how they would survive! His speeches on several occasions also prove this hatred: “we are going to behead these traitors […] if parliament passes a bill on resuming executions, I will sign it.”[3]

It could also be observed that this gastro-politic suggestion is fully coherent with the main concerns of conservative voters currently backing Erdoğan. In his patriarchal viewpoint, centrally-controlled resources represent a kind of “feeding capacity” so that the ruling party, for its own long-run purposes, could create “dependents” which are more than simple followers. This also explains why those women and children are not seen worthy to feed.

What the more frightening point in the context is, however, his pure “sincerity” in these words. This sharp tone at the top has played a decisive role in influencing public opinion to adopt the present silence above which the mass detentions and dismissals have raised.

Modern anthropology tells us “sensitivity to the suffering of other” clearly have its roots in cultural evolution of our human ancestors. But as with Erdoğan and his top guys, increasing evidence has showed that there is no guarantee that social sufferings will be honored.

Rather, thanks to the failed coup of 15th July, 2016, instead of revival of the death penalty, they seem to introduce an ancient status which already disappeared: “civil death”. Possibly, taking the reactions of the international community into consideration, Erdoğan regime preferred this option through decree laws and arbitrary detentions.

Civil death status re-emerged

A state of civil death or civiliter mortuus refers to the loss of all civil rights by a person who had been sentenced to death or declared an outlaw for committing a felony or treason. An individual subjected to civil death forfeits his or her civil rights, including the ability to marry, the capacity to own property, the right to contract, the right to sue, and the right to protection under the law.[4]

Punishing crime through limiting citizenship is a practice with deep roots in western society including ancient Greece and Rome, then Medieval Europe. This kind of punishment suggests, when convicted of certain crimes, one would suffer “civil death”, or the loss of all civil rights. Also, those criminals who were declared “outlaws” could be killed without penalty since they were literally considered to be “outside of the law”. These punishments were viewed so severe and reserved only for the most heinous of offenses.[5]

In a nutshell, civil death extinguishes most civil rights of a person convicted of a crime and largely puts that person outside the law’s protection.

From the literature, we also know that civil death as an institution faded away in the middle of the twentieth century. At least, it no longer exists under that name.[6] Today, a democratic state ought to protect the civil rights of groups seeking unusual, unpopular, and even antisocial ends and rely on the protections afforded by constitutional processes to mitigate any harm that might accrue to society.

However, in today’s Turkey, under the state of emergency conditions, effectually a new civil death is meted out to citizens accused of crimes in the form of a substantial and permanent change in legal status, operationalized by decree laws and some administrative restrictions, not by judicial decisions that being the most appropriate safeguard against arbitrariness.

On the basis of a standard allegation, i.e. “belonging to or being affiliated or connected to terrorist organizations or to organizations, entities or groups which the National Security Council had found to be engaged in activities harmful to the State” all the decree laws concerning dismissals stipulate that the civil servants in the annexed list are subject to;

  1. Dismissal from their duties in public service without any further procedure to apply: with no judicial conviction or administrative proceeding, in one night, they lose main means of subsistence, monthly salary, which is vital for fulfilment of parental responsibilities.
  2. Lifelong prohibition to be reinstated: no chance to turn back, lifelong debarment applies.
  3. Lifelong prohibition to be employed in public service even in indirect ways: lifelong debarment from “public services”, a term of which the scope is much wider than official duties in the Turkish legal framework.
  4. Withdrawal of the ranks and/or assignments without any criminal conviction: if you were a four-star general in the army, subsequent to dismissal you would be just a “private soldier” in military sense.
  5. Cancellation of the passports: dismissed person and his/her spouse are not allowed to go abroad, for example, to seek job opportunities. Only illegal ways remain to attempt.
  6. Forfeiture of registered guns provided by the state: in Turkey, as a special kind of protection, certain sensitive post holders like judges, prosecutors, auditors etc. are provided guns against possible assaults during their duty. Forfeiture therefore implies vulnerability of these people will no longer be a matter of concern for the state.
  7. Annulation of occupational licenses and rights: if you were a teacher in any public or private school, your formal license would be null and void subsequent to dismissal. That is also the case for other licensed professions such as lawyers, CPAs, pilots, captains etc.
  8. Further sanctions imposed by the special laws: dismissal is to pave the way for civil death. It is followed by a series of sanctions in a vast horizon from travel restrictions and detentions to arrest warrants as well as administrative precautions to prevent you of starting your own business or to deter employers of hiring you in their business.
  9. No formal notice required: as you are regarded legally “dead” delivery of an official notice concerning your dismissal would be waste of paper.

Worse still, together with the above sanctions, the name-surname, position, and institution of the dismissed person is appeared on the internet-access Official Gazette.[7] This publicity ensures that you would then be recognized by others as the government identifies, a “terrorist” or “traitor”, or someone else.

Thus, on every occasion in public arena from hospitals to notaries, you would face the fact of your dismissal. Publicity of your dismissal also ensures that you would not only suffer the insult of cover-ups and lies but you would often become target for harassment and abuse from the public officers, policemen, imams, neighbors, even from the man on the street.

When it comes to your original legal status, it is in effect regarded as “dead” by the law anymore. That is the situation to which the civil death status refers in the Medieval doctrine. In short, you are treated as if already dead.[8]

No need to “behead these traitors”

In Turkey, a person dismissed or detained on suspicion of being linked to the “harmful” movements like Gulenist, Kurdish, Marxist so on, may be subject to above restrictions including ineligibility to work in a particular occupation or even ineligibility to establish or maintain family relations. This form of civil death seems to be more cost-effective than killing all of them in the full sight of the world.

More than that, unlike a death penalty which destroys one’s physical existence, civil death destroys the legal capacity of individuals forcing them into permanent exclusion from the civic order.

What I would like to underline here is that the majority of people who have been accused of treason are not currently in prison. However, because of their dissenting positions recorded by the National Intelligence, they remain subject to governmental intervention of various aspects of their lives and concomitant imposition of benefits and burdens. Accusation of involvement in the coup attempt, however, remains an umbrella allegation to facilitate social stigma.

Under these circumstances, it is normal to observe that some choose not to hire, rent or marry a person with a criminal label. The case of Turkey shows that “civic exclusion” of dissenters is better achieved in that way.

On the other hand, in both ancient and modern forms of civil death, disenfranchisement applies on the basis that a civil disability automatically follows a criminal sanction since a convicted prisoner will, for the duration of his sentence, lose some certain rights. If he/she is convicted by the court with some disabilities going beyond prison, according to the laws on criminal record, when a certain period (3 years in Turkey)[9] as from the execution of the punishment expired, “expungement” procedure would apply upon request.

As for the case of Turkey, relying on the state of emergency, government designed civil death as a punishment associated with allegation (not conviction) for treason or felony.

Civil death in its original application was a transitional status in the period between a capital sentence and its execution, not a condition applicable potentially for decades.[10] But, in the lack of any judicial and/or administrative proceeding, dismissals including civil disabilities are put into force by the Turkish government on a “lifelong” basis. This is followed by a non-stop campaign of stigmatization waged by Erdoğan-sided media.

Thus, systematic loss of legal status is achieved through full entirety of governmental and social implications. I am therefore calling this entirety as “revival of the civil death.” Of course, honor of its revival in the form of “a set of disenfranchisements imposed by decree laws based on the blacklisting” belongs to Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”.


Under the leadership of Erdoğan, Turkey is heading towards an increasingly dangerous situation in which civil death could become a reality. The victims of the state of emergency, sooner or later, will face this reality as long as the international community remains so quiet and fails to show active solidarity with them.


  1. (19.05.2017)
  2. (23.05.2017)
  3. (16.07.2017)
  4. Saunders, H.D. (1970). Civil Death – A New Look at an Ancient Doctrine, William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 1, Issue 4: 988-1003.
  5. Miller, B.L. & J.F. Spillane (2012). Civil death: An examination of ex-felon disenfranchisement and reintegration, Punishment & Society, 14(4): 402-428.
  6. Chin, G.J. (2012). The New Civil Death: Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Conviction, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 160: 1789-1833.
  7. See, for example, article 2 of Decree Law No. 672 published on the Official Gazette of 1st September, 2016.
  8. Beety, V.E., M. Aloi & E. Johns (2015). Emergence from Civil Death: The Evolution of Expungement in West Virginia, West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 117, Online 63.
  9. For expungement procedure in Turkey, see article 13/A of the Law on Criminal Record
  10. Chin, ibid. 1797.LinksHunger: An Unnatural History President Erdoğan’s interview with BBC World Questions: From the “Voiceless Victims of the Crises” in Turkey coup d’état attempt of 15th July, 2016’%C3%A9tat_attempt

    Decree Law No. 672 The Law on Criminal Record

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