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Turkish justice - limited viability

Ulrich von Schwerin
January 25, 2017

Six months after Turkey declared a state of emergency there is great concern for the independence of its justice system and the rule of law. Nevertheless, there are signs of hope. Ulrich von Schwerin reports from Ankara.

Ankara - Türkische Justiz
Image: DW/U. v. Schwerin

Tens of thousands of people are in Turkish prisons awaiting trial. Most are soldiers, police officers, judges and administrators, but teachers, docents and journalists are among them as well. They are all accused of belonging to the so-called "Gulen movement," named after the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. He has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States for more than 17 years, and is the man that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says is responsible for last year's failed military coup in his country. Very few of those incarcerated have been formally charged with a crime, and most cases are still pending. Fewer still expect to receive a fair trial.

Six months after the implementation of a state of emergency following the July 15 coup attempt, many lawyers and opposition politicians say the Turkish justice system is in dire straits. Some 4,000 judges and state prosecutors were fired in the wake of the failed overthrow, accused of being Gulen supporters: 3,000 are currently in jail. In order to fill the gaps left by these mass firings, quick confirmations have taken place to appoint student teachers as judges. Legal representatives say that those teachers' lack of essential training and experience has overtaxed many of them.

Türkei Demo gegen den Ausnahmezustand in Istanbul
Demonstrators have gathered in Istanbul to protest against Erdogan's actionsImage: DW/K. Akyol

Grievances struck down, complaints ignored

Beyond the firing of judges and prosecutors, many here are concerned about a number of decrees tied to the state of emergency. These have allowed many changes to the legal process. Although there are serious doubts about the legality of these decrees, the constitutional court has refused to address the issue, says Ozturk Turkdogan, president of the Human Rights Association (IHD) NGO. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is also of little help in this instance, due to its long backlog of pending cases.

"As a lawyer, there is little I can do about these abuses, because the justice system is broken. There is no rule of law at the moment. I could walk out of here and be arrested," said Turkdogan while meeting with a delegation of the German Bar Association (DAV).

The delegation traveled to Ankara to get an impression of the situation that Turkish colleagues are facing under the state of emergency. Turkdogan says that judges live in constant fear of being fired, critical lawyers are being threatened and that the rule of law no longer applies.

Separation of powers watered down  

The constitutional reforms being pushed by President Erdogan, which were approved by Turkey's parliament last week and are to be voted on by citizens in a referendum in early April, will further limit the independence of the justice system. In the system being pursued by Erdogan, the president will not only have the power to appoint most of the country's constitutional judges, he will also control the appointment of state prosecutors and lower-court judges. With that, the separation of powers so essential for a true democracy will be greatly diluted.

Türkei | Handgreiflichkeiten im türkischen Parlament aufgrund der Verfassungsreform
Lawmakers in Turkish parliament came to blows over the contentious constitutional reformsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Although there are still opposition politicians in Turkey's parliament, they were unable to stop Erdogan's declaration of a state of emergency and will be forced to accept his proposed changes to the constitution. More than a dozen decrees have been put in place since the state of emergency was declared, yet only five have been put before parliament, says lawmaker Mahmut Tanal of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). In fact, all decrees must be approved by parliament, but complaints lodged with the body's human rights committee have become pointless as they are simply ignored, says Tanal.

Criticism unwanted, but not entirely ineffectual

Mustafa Yeneroglu, chairman of the human rights committee, says that Turkey is being unjustly criticized, and has called for more understanding for his country. He emphasizes that Turkey has not only been confronted with a wave of terror attacks, but also has to fight the Gulen movement. A member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Part (AKP), Yeneroglu wishes that Germany would finally take the threat posed by the Gulen movement seriously, rather than granting protection to movement members that flee to Germany. Yeneroglu himself grew up in Germany and also studied law there.

Deutschland Mustafa Yeneroglu zu Gast bei Maybrit Illner
Yeneroglu is chairman of the parliamentary human rights committeeImage: picture-alliance/ZB/K. Schindler

The German Bar Association delegation found the visit to Ankara sobering, saying that the government exhibited very little willingness to address concerns and criticisms. Still, pressure from Europe does not seem entirely ineffectual: Just days after talks between the German lawyers and their Turkish colleagues, Ankara published a new decree. It revised an earlier, especially contentious decree that allowed suspects to be detained by police for up to 30 days. The decree also forbade any contact between suspects and their lawyers for the first five days of incarceration.

The new decree was announced on the same day that the Council of Europe held parliamentary meetings in Strasbourg to discuss, among other things, democracy and freedom of the press in Turkey. Prior to the meeting, calls to "fully monitor" Turkey in order to ascertain whether European standards were being upheld there, grew loud. The new decree suggests that for as much as President Erdogan rails against Europe in his public appearances, his country's relationship to the EU is not entirely irrelevant.   

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