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ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's government scrapped a proposal that critics said would have allowed men accused of sexually abusing underage girls to go free if they were married to their victims.
The proposal, which had provoked a public outcry, was scheduled to undergo a final vote in parliament on Tuesday. It 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.
Hours before the vote, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the government had withdrawn the bill to submit it to a review by a parliamentary committee. But Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag later said the proposal had been shelved and would only come back on the government's agenda if all parties in Parliament manage to reach a consensus.
"The issue has been closed," Bozdag said.
The age of consent in Turkey is 18, although courts permit civil marriages for people as young as 16. Many boys and girls younger than that are married in Islamic ceremonies.
The government has argued for the need to redress "unfair treatment" of families where men were placed in jail for marrying girls under the age of 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 between 2005 and 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 argued that the bill amounted to a pardon for statutory rape and would disrupt efforts to prevent child marriages and sexual assault on children. They maintained that it would, for example legitimize the practice of men taking brides as young as 13 or 14.
Hundreds of people, gathering in front of the parliament building to protest the measure, burst into celebrations after Yildirim announced that the government had pulled back the proposal from the Parliament floor.
"I am embarrassed that this issue is even being discussed," said Perihan Koksal, one of the protesters. "A child can't be a woman, can't be a mother."
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 on 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 some 3,800 families where underage marriages had occurred according to customs.
"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 men to escape rape charges if they married their victims.