The Turkish government’s risky play with justice

The Turkish government’s risky play with justice

“Police officers, please raise your hands,” Istanbul prosecutor Zekeriya Öz requested of the crowd of reporters in his office yesterday afternoon. Reporters felt offended and could not understand at first. But they were really surprised to see three plainclothes policemen among them, pretending to be journalists, raising their hands upon the prosecutor’s demand.

This incident is actually a lively example of the “crisis between the administration and the judiciary” in Turkey as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu referred to it in a live TV show the night before.

The crisis started with a major graft operation started on Dec. 17, 2013, involving the sons of interior and economy ministers, the general manager of the government-controlled Halkbank and an Iranian-origin businessman who is involved with gold-for-oil trade with Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had to sack four ministers from Cabinet so far. In order to stop a second wave of probes, which he said was aiming to hit himself by “hitting his son,” Bilal Erdoğan (who is on the board of an NGO, allegedly involved in the operation), Erdoğan appointed a new police chief to Istanbul, Selami Altınok, who refused to carry out the operations asked by the prosecutors, which was something never seen before.

Assuming those prosecutors, judges and policemen involved in the operation were sympathizers of the U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan gave orders to his new interior minister, Efkan Ala (his former undersecretary), to start an unprecedented purge campaign within the police; so far more than 1,700 police were removed from their offices, including police chiefs of all major cities in Turkey, heads of intelligence, organized crime, counter-terrorism and financial departments.

Lately, after detaining 25 state railroads officials in a bribery operation starting from an İzmir port, three police commissioners who took place in the operation were removed on the same day of Jan. 7. In return, an İzmir prosecutor opened investigations against some other policemen who refused to take place in the operations conducted by the prosecutor’s office.

The purge seems to have spread to other government departments from finance to education. But to remove judges and prosecutors from office is not that easy for the government, at least not yet, because judicial independence of the courts is protected by the Constitution, although Turkish Parliamentary Speaker (and a former AK Parti Justice Minister) Cemil Çiçek deplored last week that it was practically invalid now. An institution called the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) is regulating their rights. And Erdoğan has suspected for some time (from long before the corruption probe) that the majority of the HSYK members were not loyal to him, but some of them to Gülen. When the HSYK took an open position to condemn a government decree asking prosecutors to inform the administration before starting an operation as being unconstitutional, and as the Council of State nixed it on the same grounds, Erdoğan decided to change the rules of the game once again.

The government planned to submit a draft to change the law of HSYK on Jan. 10 to give extraordinary powers to the Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ to endorse the power of executive and legislative branches on the judiciary; the current status is already under heavy criticism by the European Union over the violation of the separation of powers. Another interesting point is that Erdoğan had already changed the HSYK law according to government needs that day in December 2010, only slightly more than three years ago.

President Abdullah Gül stated yesterday that the separation of powers and checks and balances should be respected and that the CHP and MHP oppositions are in fury, not only because of judicial independence, but because of Erdoğan’s attempts to divert public opinion from corruption cases to this fight within. It can be considered as a fight within, since the Gülen group, all those prosecutors, judges and policemen who are at the target of Erdoğan’s government now, were close aides during the probes and court cases involving coup plots against the government, like Ergenekon and Balyoz, and the Kurdish problem, like the KCK cases. Öz used to be the apple of Erdoğan’s eye; once, he was given an armored car in order to get extra protection, which was taken back two days ago.

Going back to the office of now-demoted Öz, he told, or rather teased, the policemen, ”Why didn’t you make yourselves known in advance? Or you could at least have taken a notebook and a pen to pretend to be reporters better.”