Mustafa Balbay was released from prison on Dec. 9, after spending four years and 277 days there. He had been sentenced to 34 years for involvement in an alleged coup plot against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government in the Ergenekon trials; a verdict that is still pending approval by the Court of Appeals.
Upon his application, the Constitutional Court decided on Dec. 4 that his trial was not fair because of the extended arrest period, and ruled that he should be paid 5,000 Turkish Liras (around $2,500) as compensation. But he was not released because of this. He was released by the Istanbul 13th Penal Court, which had sentenced him, due to another Constitutional Court ruling, which said that as he had been elected as a member of Parliament during his time in jail, he should be afforded parliamentarian rights.
This was an idea that Erdoğan did not like from day one, but it was exactly the idea behind the move of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), when he enlisted Balbay as a candidate for 2011 parliamentary elections. Balbay was eventually elected as a deputy from the western port of İzmir, where he is originally from.
The morning after his release Balbay took his oath in Parliament, on Dec. 10, also the U.N. Human Rights Day by coincidence. He delivered a speech criticizing the government for its judicial and foreign policies with a bitter tongue.
Balbay’s release decreased the number of journalists and writers in prison by one, but as can easily be understood, it is not likely to have an improving effect on the freedom of expression and media situation in Turkey. However, it may have an effect on the political dynamics in Turkey. His release opens the path for the release of five other elected members of Parliament who are currently in jail.
Selma Irmak, Faysal Sarıyıldız, İbrahim Ayhan, Gülser Yıldırım and Kemal Aktaş are in prison because of their alleged actions on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Communities Union
(KCK), a popular front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK). They were elected to Parliament in the 2011 elections, from the list of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares the same grassroots as the PKK.
They have already applied to the court for their release, giving Balbay’s case as an example. If they are released it may have an effect on the ongoing dialogue between the government and the PKK
in pursuit of a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
And not only that. When Erdoğan called on Kılıçdaroğlu for cooperation over the rewriting of 60 articles of the Constitution on which all parties have agreed, the opposition leader said Erdoğan should withdraw a draft suggesting a more powerful presidential model with less checks-and-balances, and also that the CHP
would like to see jailed MPs freed. Balbay is out now and the rest is awaited in Parliament. If Erdoğan thinks it may no longer be a good idea to press for a mighty presidential model when he is not on the best terms with one of his once-closest allies, the Fethullah Gülen group, it is possible that a surprise round of talks between the AK Parti and CHP
could start, perhaps with the inclusion of BDP.
So, the Balbay release story is not totally over yet, and there is still more to see.