Erdoğan’s fight against top court weakens judicial system

Erdoğan’s fight against top court weakens judicial system

Back on March 1, 2014, this column described the Constitutional Court as the “last castle of free justice” in Turkey. I wrote that the court remained a credible body in distributing justice, and this has been proven with its recent ruling on Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, two prominent journalists of daily Cumhuriyet who had been under pre-trial arrest. 

Thanks to the high court’s response to their individual applications, Dündar and Gül were freed last week and got on with their job. As expected, the ruling sparked a lively discussion – as well as strongly worded criticisms from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, senior government officials, and high-ranking Justice and Development Party (AKP) members. 

While Erdoğan accused the high court of violating the constitution and said he would “not obey” it, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ heralded a comprehensive change in the internal regulations of the Constitutional Court, including a move to restrict the scope of individual applications. 

In an interview with the private broadcaster Habertürk TV, Bozdağ said his ministry was working on rearranging individual applications to the high court, accusing it of hearing cases that are not within its jurisdiction. 

What brought Erdoğan and AKP leaders to boiling point is the fact that the Constitutional Court’s decision highlighted that the lower court violated both Dündar and Gül’s right to freely exercise their freedom of expression and freedom of press, although they were accused of espionage and publishing secret state documents. 

That is why Bozdağ expressed his concern that this Constitutional Court verdict would nix the ongoing prosecution of Dündar and Gül, on the grounds that it framed the charges within the boundaries of freedom of expression. 

It would not be surprising if we see Erdoğan and all government members continue to keep this issue on the agenda until the first hearing of Dündar and Gül’s trial takes place later this month, in order to indirectly influence the lower court’s decision on the matter.

This verdict of the court is significant for another reason too: It is clear that a good majority of judges of the Constitutional Court have been appointed by the AKP governments. President Erdoğan even acknowledged this speaking to journalists traveling with him to West Africa when he said: “[The president of the court] is a friend I love and appreciate. But unfortunately his running into a contradiction is wrong for our country and for law.”

This may be an important mark for Erdoğan to see that simply appointing like-minded judges to key judicial bodies does not necessarily mean they will rule in line with the president’s desire. As a result, his ambition to overhaul the entire system and adopt an executive presidential model with fewer checks and balances would be further fueled. Justice Minister Bozdağ’s statement should be regarded within this picture.

Appointing trustees to one of Turkey’s largest media organizations, the Zaman group, could also be evaluated within this context. Curbing freedom of press and of speech is one of prerequisites of efforts to destroy one system in order to build a new one. The concern is that this system will in no way be a democratic one.