Midnight law targets architect group at center of Gezi protests

July 10, 2013, Wednesday/ 12:29:00/ NOAH BLASER

The surprise passage of an omnibus bill during a midnight session of Parliament on Tuesday has severely curtailed the power of Turkey's largest architect union, a measure the group says is a “revenge law” for its active role in the country's ongoing anti-government protests.

The law revokes the Chamber of Turkish Engineers and Architects' (TMMOB) once considerable powers of oversight and consultation in both municipal and private construction projects, a move which TMMOB officials said were “openly political and anti-democratic” during a Wednesday press conference.

“The law removes the TMMOB from its role in city planning as a punishment for its resistance to city planning policies our chamber finds incomprehensible,” said TMMOB President Mehmet Soğancı during the press conference. “Regardless of this law, we will not be afraid to say 'the emperor is naked' again in the future” Soğancı and others also condemned the Tuesday detention of several of TMMOB members, including the group's secretary-general, Mücella Yapıcı, who was detained by police alongside İstanbul Medical Chamber Secretary-General Ali Çerkezoğlu. The TMMOB also denounced several police raids made yesterday on the homes of its members, including Yapıcı.

“The timing of this law and these detentions is what makes developments unmistakable,” TMMOB İstanbul branch President Eyüp Muhçu told Today's Zaman. “If the rule of law is respected, a civil organization can't be punished for its disagreements with the government, but that is exactly what is happening.”

An İstanbul court last month sided with the TMMOB and a handful of other rights groups which called for the cancelation of municipal plans to demolish Gezi Park and radically transform the adjacent Taksim Square. The TMMOB has also been one of the most vocal civil groups in the month-and-a-half-long Gezi Park protests, and strongly resists broader government development plans which include a third Bosporus bridge and a third airport in İstanbul. “We felt like we were making progress when the court sided with us,” said Muhçu. “Now, the new law and yesterday's detentions have confirmed that the government isn't turning a new leaf.”

The law passed on Tuesday night states that city officials are “not accountable to the approval or review of any organization or occupational group outside official [government] organizations.” Members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) defended the law on Tuesday, with AK Party deputy Mustafa Elitaş arguing that opposition lawmakers weren't discussing other aspects of the bill.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy Ali Uzunırmak condemned both the law and the late night session in which it was passed, calling the session a “pirate session” and the law a “pirate law.” Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Adnan Keskin also sharply criticized the bill, calling it an “insidious plan of revenge and a coup” against the TMMOB. In comments carried by the Milliyet daily, CHP deputy Akif Hamzaçebi made similar statements, claiming that the law was “an extension of the government's witch hunt."

The new law is set to transfer the TMMOB's oversight and consultation powers to architects within the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, a move which architects gathered at the Wednesday press conference said would worsen the municipality's already problematic approach to urban development.

“One of the chief problems now will be how, or if, they can really provide proper review of the massive projects they're planning,” said geologist and TMMOB member Hüseyin Öztürk. “This is a matter of alienating many, many architects in the country, and then expecting to be able to launch the projects for which you will need them. I think one scary possibility is that, if the law stands, there won't be civil groups at all reviewing these construction projects, and nobody will know at all what is happening or if the reviews and double-checking is being done in a sound manner.”

TMMOB architects also worry that their loss of oversight over construction projects will also deny them critical information to challenge the government in court over development projects. “In the closed system that they have brought about, we've lost our ability to understand what is happening and take legal action against projects we believe are against the public interest," Muhçu said. He argues that an İstanbul court's decision to side with the TMMOB and stop the Taksim project earlier this month was made in large part because the group was able to demonstrate the wide gulf between what the public were shown by city authorities and the plans the TMMOB reviewed during the oversight process. “Part of our case was that the city didn't explain to the public the extent to which the city's cultural and environmental properties would be damaged," he said. "They made a lot of promises not to destroy trees or not to dig in certain places. We saw in what was submitted to us that it wasn't true.”

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