ECHR prioritizes arrested Turkish journalist’s case

ECHR prioritizes arrested Turkish journalist’s case

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently reached a very important decision concerning arrested journalists in Turkey. The court has decided to “prioritize” journalist/writer Şahin Alpay’s appeal for release following almost seven-and-a-half months under arrest. Thus, the ECHR is giving priority to an application regarding individuals arrested since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt for the first time. It is also significant that this “first” step has been taken for a journalist. 

To better understand what this means and what developments it may prompt in the coming months, let’s go back to the beginning. 

After working as an editor and writer for many years at daily Cumhuriyet and later at daily Milliyet, Şahin Alpay, 73, worked as a columnist at daily Zaman after 2002. Alpay is a leading liberal writer in Turkey; he strongly supported the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government; because of this, he was the target of anti-government circles, but in recent years, he started to criticize the government.

Immediately after the July 15 coup attempt, the staff of the most important publication of the Gülen Community, Zaman, became the target of arrests. In this wave of arrests, Alpay was also detained at his home on July 23, 2016, on charges that he was a member of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). He was arrested on July 31 and sent to Silivri Prison, near Istanbul. Meanwhile, his assets, mostly inherited from his family, were seized as part of the state of emergency. 

His lawyers filed a series of objections against his arrest. In these objections, Alpay’s state of health was highlighted on the grounds that he has to take nine different medications.  

The Constitutional Court (AYM), in a partial decision on Oct. 26, 2016, rejected a demand for his release on the grounds that “he was being adequately treated in prison.”

Upon this, on Feb. 20, almost two weeks ago, his lawyers appealed to the ECHR to order an “interim measure” for his release both because the arrest was unjust and because his health problems posed a risk. They asked that this appeal be given priority. The ECHR’s Rules of Court Rule Number 39 states that “interim measures” may be adopted in the interests of the parties.  

When did the ECHR respond to this appeal? The answer is exactly 12 days, in other words, March 3.

In its decision, the ECHR did not accept the demand for an interim measure on health grounds for Alpay.

 Apparently, the court does not believe there is any critical risk in terms of Alpay’s health. But the court said this in the next paragraph: “Priority: The court further decided to give priority to the application under Rule 41.”

Rule 41 grants a broad flexibility to the court in prioritizing complaints. 

How should one interpret the March 3 decision of the court in Strasbourg? The ECHR did not order the immediate release of Alpay, but, on the other hand, has considered reviewing the entire file objecting to his arrest. Giving priority to the application at this point shows that it views the content of the application file seriously.

A former Turkish judge who worked for nine years at the court, Rıza Türmen, said: “The ECHR could have easily rejected this application. However, it is important that it has not rejected it and decided to prioritize it. In the next step, it can be expected that it will contact the Turkish government and file questions on Şahin Alpay’s situation.”  

While evaluating the ECHR’s decision, the speed of the reply on March 3 to an application dated Feb. 20 is especially noteworthy. In this respect, it could be regarded as a stance by the ECHR in contrast to the inertia from the Constitutional Court concerning journalists under arrest. The ECHR has, for a long time, waited for the Turkish high court to reach a decision, but having seen no activity despite the warnings from Strasbourg, it has finally made a move itself.