Is Turkey’s Judiciary Independent?

Marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Supreme Court, the court’s head last week said that “judiciary in Turkey is independent and would not take an order or instruction from any institution.”

His portrayal of a judiciary operating independently of any outside influence has ignited a fierce political controversy. Supreme Court head Ismail Rustu Cirit’s depiction, his detractors and critics argued, runs counter to the reality in Turkey, where more than 4,500 judges and prosecutors have been summarily discharged from their post after becoming victims of a sweeping purge in the aftermath of a botched coup. Some 3,000 judges and prosecutors languish in abysmal prison conditions without an indictment yet to this day.

The judicial independence, according to observers and experts, is a dead letter in Turkey. Mr. Cirit’s comments, therefore, generated a round of debate over Turkey’s judicial system amid palpable signs of political pressure that cast a shadow on post-coup trials.

“It is expressed that there is no judicial independence and we are criticized through this matter,” the top judge said in an effort to deflect criticism directed at the perceivably compromised judiciary. “I rather see a judicial independence in Turkey and witness that the impartiality of the judiciary takes place in the best form since the constitutional amendment,” he noted, offering a counter-argument that portrays an impartial judiciary.

“Those who argue the opposite must prove it. Judiciary is independent and impartial in Turkey,” he spoke with an unshakeable conviction. “It cannot take order or instruction from any institution. The 138th article of the constitution prohibits that.”

But his endorsement of the last year’s constitutional amendment approved by the people in a referendum as the indication and enabler of the judiciary’s independence contradicts the facts.

The amendment envisions a judiciary much more controlled by the executive branch represented by an all-powerful president with checks and balances system is weakened. On April 16 of last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan barely managed to steer his reform package with a razor-thin victory after a controversial vote-tally process. It contains the risk of rendering Turkey’s judiciary into a rubber-stamp institution with ominous implications for the legal system.

The ever-expanding post-coup crackdown on government critics, the government’s trampling on media members and mass trials against public servants, generals and the pre-trial imprisonment of more than 50,000 people bequeathed a toxic legacy on Turkey’s judiciary whose own members have been brutally targeted.

Gulen Movement, pro-Kurdish political party and its members, supporters have emerged as the main targets of a crackdown of unprecedented severity. And with arrests of nearly 500 people on charges of links to Gulen Movement on weekly basis, that campaign shows no signs of winding down.

The public debate over judiciary never recedes despite all the display of self-censorship by the mainstream media, which either voluntarily compromised or forced to co-opt with the stark political realities at play.

President Erdogan joined the fray and unexpectedly offered a sharp criticism of the current judicial system.

“If people in a country feel overwhelmed and open their hands to the skies, seeking justice, then there is a serious problem in the justice system,” he said, distancing himself from the judiciary. 

“We have to know that when we lose justice, we lose everything.” His unusual comments were regarded as the potential harbinger of a new shift in Erdogan’s government’s policies toward the judicial branch.

A dismissed prosecutor who served 16 months in prison viewed Erdogan’s remarks as a potential sellout of the judges who imprisoned more than 50,000 people.

A riveting report by a human rights organization about rights violations during the state of emergency reveal building broad public discontent with the dire conditions that upended lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The summary dismissal of public servants has created deep resentment in many segments of the society. What worsened the plight of people is the absence of measures for a satisfactory legal remedy in the domestic realm.

A commission set by the government last year to hear the complaints of sacked public workers only reviewed a few thousand of applications. While the government-appointed commission processed 107,076 applications, it reached decisions over 6,400 of them and proposed reinstatement of only 100 public servants back to their posts. Its foot-dragging and slow pace of its workings infuriated people whose path to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) go through the Turkish commission as a measure of domestic remedy.

The judiciary has become the center of an intense political turf war since the attempted coup. The Supreme Court head bragged the purge of perceived Gulen-affiliated members of the judiciary and claimed that the ongoing trials against them are fair and impartial.

His characterization of trials as fair elicited fierce backlash on social media.

‘Compromised Judiciary’

The case of a teacher who was tortured to death in prison in the aftermath of the coup and how authorities worked hard to cover up the traces of torture came to media spotlight last week.

Gokhan Acikkollu, a history teacher at an Istanbul High School, lost his life after two weeks of torture in police custody in 2016 summer. Two weeks ago, he was restored to his post one and a half year after his death.

It was a textbook case of the mistreatment of inmates in police custody and how the authorities arbitrarily handled the purge process.

When a strong public reaction appeared in a rare moment, Istanbul’s Public Prosecutor’s Office hastily came up with a statement, rejecting claims of torture as terrorist propaganda.

The unsigned statement on behalf of the prosecutor’s office said the medical findings following the death of the teacher were sent to Justice Ministry for a new medical review to decide whether he died of torture.

The prosecutor’s office declined the lawyer’s demand for an investigation into police officers for the alleged responsibility in torturing the teacher. It’s consistent refusal to probe torture claims raised eyebrows.

The state of judiciary appears to be in shambles and a constant state of disarray after thousands of new, inexperienced judges and prosecutors replaced with the purged ones. More than 4,000 new names joined the depleted ranks of the judiciary to fill the vacuum. But the claims of nepotism, the lowering standards for selection of new judges, the political interference and other factors raised serious doubts over qualification of the newly appointed judges.

One recent incident created a fresh controversy. When a young prosecutor failed to reach his girlfriend at a college dormitory when he called her, he stormed the building next morning with policemen to quarrel with his girlfriend.

Hard Slog and Prison Conditions Deter Judiciary

The judiciary has been smothered by hundreds of thousands of new cases after the botched coup. In a separate occasion, Supreme Court head Cirit said nearly 7 million citizens have been treated as suspects last year.

“It means that 8 percent of Turkey’s population appeared as suspects, being subject to first-instance investigations,” he stated in a speech at Okan University in Istanbul last November.

Another factor that keeps judiciary under constant fear is the harsh imprisonment conditions. According to observers, more than 100 judges and prosecutors who were summarily arrested in the aftermath of the coup have been kept in solitary confinement.

“Prosecutor Mustafa Bilgili has been kept in solitary confinement for 16 months! Not one day, not one week… Not one year… These situations are against human rights, law and norms… Is the aim to drive [inmate] mad?” Canada-based Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz asked.

In a series of tweets, she reminded the forgotten names of the imprisoned judges and prosecutors who languish in isolated prison cells across Turkey.

Soon after the moment he was released, Journalist Ahmet Sik lamented that solitary confinement is a pure form of torture.

“I have learned what solitary confinement means. There is no need for torture, prison is itself a torture,” he said, reflecting the consensus among experts and families of inmates about the prison conditions. “There is nothing humane in prisons. There is a Silivri reality in this country.”

The investigative journalist Sik served more than a year in Istanbul’s notorious Silivri prison in pre-trial detention. He was released on Friday.

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