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Turkey withdraws a bill that critics said essentially pardoned sexual abuse of minors

Turkey withdraws a bill that critics said essentially pardoned sexual abuse of minors
Women show their hands painted to represent a child's face as thousands of members of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party marched to parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. (Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

After a public outcry, Turkey's government has withdrawn a proposal that critics said would have allowed men accused of sexually abusing girls to go free if they were married to their victims.

The proposal, which was scheduled to undergo a final vote in parliament Tuesday, would have deferred sentencing or punishment for sexual assault of minors in cases where there was no physical force and where the victim and perpetrator were married. The government said it would now submit the proposal for review to a parliamentary committee.

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The age of consent in Turkey is 18, although courts permit civil marriages for people as young as 16. Many younger people are married in Islamic ceremonies.

The government has argued for the need to redress "unfair treatment" of families in which fathers were placed in jail for marrying girls younger than 18 even if both parties and their parents consented.

The proposal by the ruling Justice and Development Party, rooted in Turkey's Islamic movement, would have applied to cases that had occurred from 2005 to Nov. 16 of this year. The measure would have required men who were married to minors in Islamic ceremonies to formalize their union with civil marriages.

Opponents contended that the bill amounted to a pardon for statutory rape if the perpetrator was married to his victim, and would disrupt efforts to prevent child marriages and sexual assault on children. They said it would, for example, legitimize the practice of men taking brides as young as 13 or 14.

Hours before the vote, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters the government was pulling back the proposal from the floor and would ask an all-party commission on family affairs to review it.

His comments came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the state-run Anadolu news agency late Monday that a broad consensus on the issue should be sought.

"Due to a lack of full public consensus, our president's call for a broad consensus and to allow opposition parties to develop their own proposals, we are taking this proposal which is in parliament to the commission," Yildirim said. "This problem will certainly be solved after being discussed in detail, with all parties' views being taken into account."

Hundreds of protesters in front of the parliament building burst into celebration after the government pulled back the measure.

"I am embarrassed that this issue is even being discussed," protester Perihan Koksal said. "A child can't be a woman, can't be a mother."

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition nationalist party, called on the government to abandon the measure completely and said that submitting it to a review is not enough.

"Don't suffocate Turkey any further with such meaningless and empty discussions," Bahceli said in a speech in parliament.

Opposition parties, rights groups and citizens had widely condemned the proposal since its initiation last week, issuing statements and staging demonstrations in a number of cities.

United Nations agencies, including the children's fund UNICEF, issued a joint statement Monday warning that the proposal "would weaken the country's ability to combat sexual abuse and child marriages."

The government had insisted it was committed to fighting child marriages but said the one-time measure was needed to help about 3,800 families in which underage marriages had occurred according to customs.

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"We cannot ignore" this problem, Yildirim said. "There are 3,800 cases and thousands of children. The children are paying the price of their parents' mistakes."

In 2005, as part of efforts to join the European Union, the government scrapped loopholes in legislation that had allowed a man to escape rape charges if he married his victim.

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