By Gulsen Solaker and Humeyra Pamuk
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling party has withdrawn for review a proposed bill allowing men accused of sexual abuse to avoid sentence, but a public uproar has persisted, with opposition parties and civil society groups calling for it to be canceled entirely.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the draft will be withdrawn from the parliament's general assembly and sent back to a commission for review and to seek the opinion of the opposition and civil society, in line with a call from President Tayyip Erdogan for a wider consensus.
The proposal, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, would have allowed sentencing to be indefinitely postponed in cases of sexual abuse committed "without force, threat or deception" before Nov. 16, 2016, if the perpetrator married the victim.
"This issue will be reviewed in commission, and if there is a proposal we will review and amend it," Yildirim said at a news conference in Ankara. "If not, we will solve the issue by taking into consideration the recommendations from the people and NGOs."
The ruling AK Party's bill drew condemnation from many, who said it would provide a legal basis for sexual abuse under the pretext of under-age marriages. Among the critics were a women's association seen as close to Erdogan.
The government said the bill would remedy the situation of men who were sent to jail after they married girls under the age of 18, in religious ceremonies and with the consent of their family. It rejected suggestions that the plan amounted to an "amnesty for rape".
Several thousand people, some carrying banners saying 'Rape can not be acquitted', 'There is no such thing as child brides, only pervert men' demonstrated outside the parliament to demand the immediate cancellation of the bill. Police fired pepper spray on one of the groups.
"As thousands of demonstrators have shown, women's rights are not negotiable," Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, said in a written statement.
"The government should help these families with concrete measures rather than disturbingly linking suspending sentences to marriage in any way. These proposals should be rejected once and for all," she said.
The opposition and civil society groups said the step back by the ruling AK Party on the bill was not enough and called for the proposal to be entirely dropped.
"No matter what everyone else says, this proposal promises an amnesty for rapists," Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said in a speech at the parliament. "I call on the AKP: Do not settle with pulling this proposal back to the commission. Drop it entirely."
Civil marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in Turkey, but marriage between men and underage girls in religious ceremonies is not uncommon, particularly in rural areas. Some argued that such marriages were not abusive and the couples were simply unaware of the civil law.
The controversy comes as Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union are hanging by a thread. Some European leaders have called for accession talks to be frozen, citing a deterioration in freedoms in the country, which they say is taking it ever further from European norms.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Umit Bektas and Mert Ozkan; Editing by Daren Butler, Larry King)