The ombudsman deception

The ombudsman deception

The gap between the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) claim to be instituting “advanced democracy” in Turkey and the actual situation on the ground continues to grow. The recent election of the country’s first ombudsman, required for Turkeys’ European Union bid, is one of the latest indications of this, though by no means the only one.

Normally the election of an ombudsman should be a joyous event, signaling, as it does, a genuine step toward “advanced democracy.” But this is Turkey where it is possible to take the most noble of institutions and corrupt its meaning and function in ways that defeat the purpose of the exercise.

Webster’s defines “ombudsman” as “A public official appointed to investigate citizens’ complaints against government agencies or officials that may be infringing on the rights of individuals; or who is employed by an institution to investigate complains against it.”

In other words, the ombudsman’s job is to protect the individual against the state, and to provide impartial judgments in disputes based on demonstrated neutrality. So what did the government go and do?

It nominated a person for this high office who has no credentials to speak of in terms of the impartiality required, and who – at a critical juncture for Turkey’s reputation as a democracy – supported the state against an individual who was simply exercising his right to free expression.

The man in question is Mehmet Nihat Ömeroğlu, who was recently elected ombudsman with AKP votes. Even so, only 258 out of 326 AKP deputies in Parliament voted for him, indicating that a considerable number of members from the ruling party could not stomach him either.

A retired member of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Ömeroğlu’s notoriety is based on his approval in 2006 of the sentence given to Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink under the draconian Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. Dink was sentenced to prison for “publicly insulting the Turkish nation, the Republic of Turkey and its government, Parliament or Judiciary.”

With pressure from the EU, Article 301 was subsequently softened, if not abolished as it should have been, and Dink did not have to go to prison after all. What happened instead was that he was murdered in 2007 in front of his paper, the Armenian- and Turkish-language Agos, by an ultranationalist gunman.

Many remain convinced that Dink’s sentence under Article 301, and its approval by the Supreme Court of Appeals, amounted to a death sentence which was subsequently carried out by shadowy right-wing quarters taking the cue from the court ruling, and acting with the involvement – by means of criminal negligence if nothing else – of state officials.

Following the outcry resulting from his election, Ömeroğlu tried to justify himself by claiming in an interview that when he approved the Dink ruling, he was not aware the person involved was Hrant Dink because his name was listed in court documents as “Fırat” (which in fact was one of Dink’s names).

It is not clear how he intended to clear his name with such a foolish remark, given that it makes little difference whether it was Dink, or anyone else, involved in a case that concerned state interference into the right to free expression. At any rate, it came out pretty fast that Dink’s full name, with all its variations, was in fact in all of the court documents.

This left Ömeroğlu looking like a liar at worst or as someone who was not in full command of his job in the Supreme Court of Appeals at best. As if this was not enough, it was also reported that he had received private favors from the government in the past, which further tarnished his image of impartiality.

The government’s ombudsman deception provides more justification for those who suspect the AKP’s true intentions, given that the steps it is taking one after another have little to do with “advanced democracy” and are increasing the country’s need for a genuine, not a fake, ombudsman.