Laws are not just words on paper

Laws are not just words on paper

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin has submitted the so called “fourth judicial package,” which aims to bring Turkey’s penal code up to European standards, for approval by the government. If the package is accepted and passed by Parliament this will be a major achievement for the government.

Turkey’s human rights record and the deficiencies in its democracy remains under international and domestic scrutiny today, despite Prime Minister Erdoğan’s claim that there have been marked improvements in these areas since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

That claim is belied by the hundreds of people – journalists, soldiers, Kurds and ordinary citizens – who are in prison for political activities considered to fall under the anti-terrorism stipulations of the present penal code. By some accounts, there are more people in prison today for political reasons, than at any time in the past, including periods following military coups.

While precise figures are hard to come by, what is certain, to take one example, is that Turkey is considered today to be “the worlds biggest prison for journalists,” to use the characterization of the Paris-based media watchdog group “Reporters Without Borders.”

The changes to the penal code proposed in the fourth judicial package include the broadening of the definition for freedom of expression, the prevention of long term detentions pending verdicts, and redress for people who have been subjected to this in legally questionable ways.

Also proposed are penalties for disproportionate use of force by the police and other security elements, tougher regulations to check against torture in detention centers, the lifting of the statue of limitations for torturers, and new regulations for phone tapping by the authorities preventing illegal eavesdropping.

They new judicial package will also allow for conscientious objection, making it possible for citizens to serve the state or the community in other ways, instead of having to do compulsory military service. Meanwhile criminal liability will be introduced for suicides in the military, a phenomenon that is only just being focused on by the media.

These are just some of the proposed changes, and there is enough being written and said about the fourth judicial package for those interested in its full details to get informed. The fact remains, however, that while everything looks good on paper, there are still questions as to whether things will really change with this package.

Some analysts point to laws that prosecutors can still interpret with great flexibility if they are determined to hound someone for this or that political or ideological purpose. Put another way, words on paper are all very well, but it is the spirit of the text, and the way the law is implemented, that will remain crucial.

As matters stand, there are enough stipulations in the present penal code which, if implemented properly, would not have landed Turkey in a position where its image is tarnished over matters relating to human and democratic rights. But the correct spirit has been lacking.

Clearly, laws are not just words on a piece of paper to be interpreted flexibly according to the whims, ideological orientations, or political hang-ups of prosecutors and judges. This is why there is also the need to train members of the judiciary in order to bring the judicial system up to EU standards.

In addition to this, there is the need to improve the relevant judicial infrastructure to prevent backlogs leading to long delays in meting out justice. In other words if the spirit of those implementing the law is wrong, and the judicial infrastructure remains the same, problems will continue.

So the jury will remain out on the fourth judicial package until it is tangibly seen that the stipulations in the package are implemented in line with the standards of the “advanced democracy” that Prime Minister Erdoğan claims to be moving Turkey towards.