Turkey’s arresting machine gone mad

Turkey’s arresting machine gone mad

A friend of mine is a lawyer at the Istanbul Bar Association. He is Kurdish but not a Kurdish nationalist. He is religiously conservative but also politically liberal. And, most importantly, he is a very honest man.

“Turkey’s legal system is simply scandalous,” he said to me over coffee a few weeks ago. And then he explained: “Both prosecutors and judges love arresting people. I have seen judges who said, ‘Well, let me put the suspect in jail first, and I will think about it later.’ Then, after many months, the judge thinks, ‘Since I put the man in jail for so long, it will be bizarre not to give him a sentence.’ Then the poor suspect gets sentenced for nothing!”

Such episodes are perhaps the most evil manifestations of Turkey’s arresting machine, but its mundane results are also terrible. According to the figures given by the Human Rights Association (of Turkey), 42 percent of all the 128,000 inmates in Turkish prisons are not convicts but arrested suspects. Other figures indicate most suspects in Turkish courts are acquitted at the end of the trials. In other words, tens of thousands of citizens spend time in jail for nothing.

There are some deep structural reasons to this systemic crackdown on human liberty. First of all, unlike other countries such as the United States, the Turkish legal system has no concept of bail. Secondly, modern techniques such as electronic tagging have not made their way to Turkey yet, despite promises from the Justice Ministry. So, the only way to make sure a suspect does not run away is considered to be putting him in jail.

The less technical but more fundamental problem is arrests are seen by both state and society as a sign of “serious” trials. When a suspect is released by the court during the course of his trial, this is widely regarded as an indication of innocence. On the contrary, if a case is considered “serious,” both the state machinery, the society, and even much of the media expects the accused should be in prison as long as the case goes on, which might be years!

This illogical, illiberal and inhumane arresting machine has been active for many decades, but it is only in recent years it made it to international headlines. Some very “serious” and controversial cases have been opened since 2006, which involve many officers, ideologues and even journalists who have been accused of being involved in a military coup scheme against the elected government. The other day, this wave reached an unprecedented level, with the arrest of retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who used to be the chief of General Staff of the Turkish military until only a year ago.

Here is my take on all these cases: I do not think they are made-up stories to “crack down on opponents,” as some opponents of the government claim. The political history of Turkey proves military coups helped by civilian ideologues are not fantasies. However, these cases – such as “Ergenekon” or “Sledgehammer” – are carried out with the old tools of the Turkish state, which are, as I noted, illogical, illiberal and inhumane. (The case against the KCK, “Kurdistan Democratic Confederation,” is a different but similar story).

So, the penal code articles on “helping a terrorist organization” can easily turn into criminalization of ideology. And Turkey’s arresting machine, as it has always done, can easily put suspects in prison for years, for accusations that sometimes look very overblown.

The government should be forced to introduce an extensive legal reform, which will both minimize the court’s powers to arrest people and block their urge to criminalize ideas. Otherwise, the suggestion Turkey has become an “advanced democracy” will growingly look like a not-so-advanced joke.

For Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” visit his blog TheWhitePath.com. Follow him on Twitter @AkyolinEnglish.