By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A bill that could allow men accused of sexually abusing girls in Turkey to avoid punishment if they marry their victim would create a climate of impunity for child abuse in the country, U.N. agencies warned on Monday.
The Turkish parliament gave preliminary backing to the controversial proposal put forward by the ruling AK Party last week.
MPs are due resume the debate on Tuesday before a second and final vote.
Several U.N. agencies criticized the legislation, which they said was akin to an amnesty for child abusers and could expose victims to further suffering at the hands of their abusers.
"Any forms of sexual violence against children are crimes which should be punished as such," the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, U.N. Women and the U.N. Development Programme in Turkey said in a joint statement on Monday.
"We call on all Members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly to do their utmost in ensuring that all girls and boys in Turkey are better protected from all forms of sexual abuse."
The proposal, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, would allow sentencing in cases of sexual abuse committed "without force, threat or trick" before Nov. 16, 2016 to be indefinitely postponed if the perpetrator marries the victim.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said its aim was to remedy the situation of men who are in jail and are married to women under the age of 18 in a religious ceremony and with the consent of their family. He rejected suggestions that the plan amounted to an "amnesty for rape".
"There are those who got married under age. They don't know the law, then they have kids, the father goes to jail and the children are alone with their mother," Yildirim said on Friday.
Civil marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in Turkey, but marriage between men and underage girls through religious ceremonies is not uncommon, particularly in rural parts of the Sunni Muslim nation of 78 million people.
Campaign group Girls Not Brides says Turkey has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe, with an estimated 15 percent of girls married before the age of 18.
The bill drew widespread condemnation from opposition MPs, rights groups and members of the public, with more than 800,000 people signing an online petition for parliament to drop the legislation.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Istanbul and other cities at the weekend, leading the AK Party lawmakers to consider revising the text, local media said.
"We hope Turkey will do the right thing and not pass this bill that promotes violence," said Antonia Kirkland of campaign group Equality Now.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell)