Controversial judicial decisions cause Turkey’s biggest problem to resurface

Controversial judicial decisions cause Turkey’s biggest problem to resurface

Last week Turkey witnessed two important judicial decisions. The first one was about an appeals court’s rule that upheld the convictions of journalists and executives from Cumhuriyet newspaper.

As can be recalled, a court had sentenced 14 staff of the opposition newspaper to jail on charges of terrorism and supporting FETÖ in a move that caused a massive uproar in regards to the freedom of the press in Turkey.

Cumhuriyet newspaper was among the few media outlets that had warned the previous governments over the danger FETÖ posed against the unity and stability of Turkey. Therefore, for many, charging well-known and credible Cumhuriyet columnists with supporting FETÖ was not consistent with the natural flow of life. The case had constituted one of the major incidents that further prompted criticisms against the government’s intolerance toward dissident voices.

According to a statement made by Cumhuriyet, upon the final verdict of the appeals court, those who have been sentenced for less than five years, journalists Hakan Kara and Güray Öz, cartoonist Musa Kart, lawyer Mustafa Kemal Güngör, board member Önder Çelik, and accountant Emre İper, will return to prison to complete their sentences.

Editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, journalists Ahmet Şık (who is now an MP from the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP]), Hikmet Çetinkaya, Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay and Aydın Engin, all jailed for more than five years, will have to return to prison pending their appeal to a higher court, the paper added. Journalist Kadri Gürsel and lawyer Bülent Utku will not go back to prison due to time already served.

It’s beyond doubt that this rule is interpreted as yet another important blow to the freedom of expression and independent journalism.

The second judicial move that fueled concerns over the state of democracy in Turkey was the indictment penned by a prosecutor that sought life in prison for all 16 suspects, including civil society activist and businessman Osman Kavala, actor Mehmet Ali Alabora and some other prominent figures, on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” through the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 failed coup attempt.

The 657-page indictment describes the suspects as the top brass of the 2013 Gezi Protests, the biggest ever civil uprising against the government’s policies on a number of issues, including urbanization and lifestyles.

Kavala was arrested in November 2017. He will appear before a court for the first time in the coming weeks if the indictment gets approved by the court. He was repeatedly accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of “financing terrorists” and being the Turkish representative of U.S. businessman George Soros.
The arrest of Kavala and others as part of this investigation into the Gezi Protests as well as the indictment of the prosecutor have brought about serious concerns over the government’s sincerity in dealing with the deteriorated state of the Turkish justice.

As known, the government had promised to address judicial problems by adopting a comprehensive judicial reform strategy during two Reform Action Group meetings in August and December 2018. It was meant to undertake serious changes to the judicial practices to avoid long detention periods and to promote prosecution without arrest. Furthermore, structural measures to strengthen the impartiality and independence of judges were also expected in order to get rid of the influence of the executive on judicial decisions.

In the aftermath of these action group meetings, working groups, with the participation of the justice and foreign ministries, had been set up and cooperation was sought with the Council of Europe so that the judicial reform strategy would be efficient and meet European standards reflected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

It seems its announcement will have to wait for the completion of local elections. There is still time for the government to fulfill its promises on renewing the judicial system as the European Commission has decided to delay the release of its annual Progress Report on candidate countries.

The current practices of the judicial system reveal the fact that these problems need immediate and substantive remedies. A failure in delivering drastic and structural changes in the justice system will unfortunately further distance Turkey from the universally-approved value-based system.

At the end of the day, the absence of the rule of law will have its negative reflections on Turkey’s democratic and economic integration with the rest of the world.

Turkey, Cumhuriyet, press freedom