Thousands have taken to the streets of Istanbul and other cities in Turkey to protest against a bill that would allow child rapists to walk free if they marry their victims.
The country’s government insists the law would help resolve legal challenges caused by widespread child marriage in the country, yet critics argue the bill legitimises rape.
In Istanbul, protesters clapped and chanted: “We will not shut up. We will not obey. Withdraw the bill immediately.”
About 3,000 people gathered in Istanbul’s Kadikoy square, many waving placards that said: “Rape cannot be legitimised,” and “AKP, take your hands off my body” – in reference to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that proposed the bill.
Similar demonstrations were held in other cities, including Ankara, Izmir and Trabzon.
If the law passes, men who sexually abuse girls under 18 without “force, threat or any restriction on consent” and marry them could have their convictions quashed or avoid prosecution.
The proposed change would apply to cases between 2005 and 16 November 2016.
Protester Cigdem Evcil told the BBC: “I am a mother. How am I supposed to react to this? I can`t believe it, it's not normal, it doesn't make sense.
“If I let this happen to my daughter, if the mothers in this country let this happen, it means we are not mothers.”
Another protester told Associated Press: “Pardoning the crime of sexual assault, or dropping it due to prescription, is out of the question.
“People who commit sexual assault and rape crimes cannot be cleared.”
One of the women protesters who gave her name as Ruya told AFP: “We will not allow the AKP to acquit and set free rapists in this country.
“Women will resist and take to the streets until this law and similar other laws are withdrawn.”
Another protester, a middle-aged man named Ugur, attended the protest with his 14-year-old daughter.
“I am concerned about my daughter's future,” he told AFP. “[The] AKP is passing any law they want in the parliament.”
The AKP enjoys a comfortable majority in the 550-seat parliament, holding 317 seats.
“That's the maximum we can do. To protest,” he added.
The UN children’s fund said it was “deeply concerned” about the draft bill.
“These abject forms of violence against children are crimes which should be punished as such, and in all cases the best interest of the child should prevail,” said spokesman Christophe Boulierac.
MPs approved the draft law in its initial reading on Thursday and it will be voted on again on Tuesday, but following the contriversy Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim has ordered the AKP to suspend talks with the opposition about the law.
Mr Yildirim said the bill was intended to release men jailed after marrying underage girls in religious ceremonies who had received the consent of a girl’s family.
He rejected suggestions that the plan amounted to an “amnesty for rape”.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag similarly rejected the claim, saying: “The bill will certainly not bring amnesty to rapists.”
“This is a step taken to solve a problem in some parts of our country,” he told a Nato meeting in Istanbul.
Yet Turkish bar association Izmir Barosu said in a statement: “This proposal is clearly an attack on protecting children from sexual abuse.
“We must make clear that any regulation against the protection of sexual abuse of children has no place in the public conscience.
“The proposed regulation is intended to institutionalise child abuse. Physical and sexual violence against children and women is a crime.”
The proposals have been criticised by pro-government groups. The Women’s and Democracy Association – whose deputy chairman is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's daughter Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar – said a major problem with the bill would be proving what constituted force or consent.
It said: “How can the ‘own will’ of such a young girl be identified? We would like to draw attention to issues that might arise in case of it coming into force.”
A petition on change.org urging the authorities to stop the legislation has accrued more than 600,000 signatures.
The bill comes after Turkey’s constitutional court in July annulled part of the criminal code which classified all sexual acts with children under 15 as sexual abuse, a change that also prompted uproar.
Although the legal age of consent is 18 in Turkey, child marriage is widespread, particularly in the south-east.
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