There are judges in Ankara
Mustafa Balbay, a journalist who works for daily Cumhuriyet, was released from jail on Monday after spending almost five years in prison. This was good news not only for his family and friends, but also Turkish democracy. It has shown that, despite all the partisanship within Turkey’s controversial judiciary, there are still fair judges who are willing to uphold the universal norms of justice and democracy.
First, let’s recall who Balbay is. Until he was taken into custody in March 2009, he used to write a column for Cumhuriyet, a hard-core secularist paper with sympathies for the then-powerful military. The prosecutors claimed that Balbay had secret meetings with some coup-craving generals and agreed to help their illegal efforts with his writings. Balbay, in return, argued that he was only doing his job as a journalist.
In a normal country, Balbay would probably have been released after some questions, but this is Turkey, and he was instead arrested because the “Ergenekon” coup case, as it became known, expanded exponentially due to a poisonous mix of conspiratorial thinking and revanchist zeal. In my view, among the 275 suspects, there really were figures that craved the chance to launch a military coup against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Some of them were also criminals from earlier episodes of the “deep state.” But other suspects were just ideologically affiliated and the crimes attributed to them sounded more fantastical than factual. People like Balbay, in my personal view, were in this third category.
But years passed, and Balbay remained in jail. For the general elections of June 2011, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which argued that the whole Ergenekon case was bogus, named Balbay as a candidate for Parliament. When he got elected, many thought that the court would release him to take his seat in the legislature. He was not yet convicted, after all, but only kept in custody. But Balbay was never released and his seat in Parliament, like eight other similar ones, remained empty.
In August, the controversial Ergenekon case finally came to an end: An Istanbul court exonerated only 21 of the 275 suspects, giving the rest various prison terms. Balbay got a staggering prison term of 34 years and eight months. However, this was not the final decision, as the case went to the Court of Appeals, which is expected to announce its decision sometime in 2014.
Meanwhile, a better thing happened. Balbay’s lawyers had taken his case also to the Constitutional Court, which, since the constitutional amendments of 2010, partly acts as a human rights court, similar to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On Dec. 4, the Constitutional Court ruled that Balbay’s very long imprisonment before his conviction amounted to a “violation of rights” and “violation of his right to be elected,” deciding that he should be compensated. Five days later, the decision in Ankara made the Istanbul court who held Balbay release him.
Now Balbay is in the parliamentary seat that he deserves, and he might never go back to prison if he gets constantly re-elected, even if his verdict is affirmed by the Court of Appeals. That is certainly good news for him and his family. For Turkish democracy, the better news is that with this verdict, the Constitutional Court, led by top judge Haşim Kılıç, a man of principles, has confirmed that it is the guardian of not any particular political camp, but the rights of all citizens.