Law and order in Turkey
When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blasted the Constitutional Court before taking off for Africa, he took most of us by surprise. If we had been living in the 1990s or even the early years of the 2000s, his statements would have been flashing on newswire screens. People would be calling each other to get reactions, TV stations would call up legal experts to read between the lines. None of it happened. Zip, nada, zero. It was as if he never said it.
President Erdoğan’s remarks about the release of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül underline a fundamental problem about his and the pro-AKP media’s perception of law and order. High courts rarely feel the need to obey the executive branch. In fact, their sole existence relies on the control they exercise among different branches of government.
Take a look at the case that Apple and the FBI are fighting. The FBI wants access to a telephone. Just one phone that is. But in this day and age, access to something as private and loaded as a mobile phone means giving up all your rights. That is why people outside Apple stores in the U.S. are expressing support. Now imagine something like that happening in Turkey. Could any mobile service provider resist a government order and challenge it in a FAIR AND FREE COURT? Could President Erdoğan control himself and actually say something like, “It is a legal battle for personal freedoms and national security. So I will refrain from making any statement that can affect the court?” Not very likely.
Believe it or not, in 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable. The issue was incredibly important for farmers because of tax regulations. Now imagine President Erdoğan expressing complete and utter disappointment about the decision. “How dare they call it a fruit? I will neither respect nor obey this ruling,” he would say. Luckily he is right, the court ruled 9-0 in favor of a tomato being a vegetable even though I prefer to eat it like a fruit. So sue me.
Look at the 1984 Texas vs Johnson case, the so-called “flag-burning case” that is taught in every freshman law class in colleges. The court ruled in favor of the citizen, saying the right to differ was an integral part of the U.S. Constitution and that flag burning was perfectly legal under these circumstances. They also concluded that the flag burning was not a breach of the peace.
During his speech yesterday, Chief Justice Zühtü Arslan spoke very calmly about the role of the court. “We are not holy people,” he said, “our decisions can be, and in fact should be criticized. That is the essence of law. However, I condemn the accusations that we have been taking decisions with instructions.”
Justice Arslan’s words speak for themselves. “We do not take orders or instructions,” he said. “We were here before they remembered our existence,” he added. That is the perfect definition of a high court. You should know and feel that it is there and it will be defending you as a citizen against the probable tyranny of governments or corporations.
Writing in 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle declared, “The rule of law is better than the rule of any individual.” Turkey’s Constitutional Court proved him right.