On September 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an exclusive interview to the U.S. television program “PBS NewsHour” ahead of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Under Erdogan's two-decade-plus rule, Turkey has become one of the world’s most prolific jailers of journalists and human rights activists.
The interviewer, Amna Nawaz, asked Erdogan if he is “threatened by these people.”
Erdogan became combative, questioning why Nawaz was interested in the topic and chalking up the prosecutions to the country’s courts, which he implied are independent:
“Turkey has a state of law. Such decisions can only be made by the judiciary. And if this is what the judiciary has decided to do, let the decisions or the judgments of the judiciary be respected and executed.”
When asked follow-up questions regarding the prosecution of his opponents, the Turkish president became combative:
“Don't interrupt. You have no right to interrupt. You're not going to interrupt me. And respect me. And you are going to respect the judgment of the judiciary, as well.
“The American judiciary is a full-fledged judiciary. So is the judiciary of Turkey. And you have to respect that. We are a state of law, and inside that state of law, this is how we lived, and this is how we will keep on living.”
That is misleading. Despite claims of judicial independence, Erdogan has used Turkey’s courts to target dissent.
Following a failed July 15, 2016, coup, Turkish authorities sought to purge followers of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric living in the United States, from the civil service, military and academia. Erdogan blames Gulen, a former ally, for the 2016 coup. Gulen denies any role in the plot.
In July 2022, Turkey’s then internal affairs minister, Suleyman Soylus, said authorities had detained 332,884 and arrested 101,000 people following the coup attempt over their alleged affiliation with the Gulen movement, which Turkey labeled a terrorist organization.
Erdogan called the coup attempt “a gift from God” that allowed him to “cleanse our army.”
Critics said it gave him a pretext to purge the judiciary of dissenting voices, as Turkish authorities jailed or dismissed thousands of judges and prosecutors from their posts.
The Belgium-based Arrested Lawyers Initiative, which advocates for lawyers and human rights defenders in Turkey, said “years of relentless targeting of the independence of the Turkish judiciary” has given Erdogan “absolute control over it.”
According to a May 2020 Reuters investigation, the purge “hollowed out Turkey’s justice system” even as the caseload “exploded.”
Reuters found that following the purges, 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors had three years of experience or less. Lacking experience, the “loyal and inexperienced” judges were tasked with handling a “dramatic spike in workload from coup-related prosecutions.”
Lawyers interviewed by Reuters also said the increasingly common practice of switching judges during trials was a means for the government to exert control over the courts.
Lawyers who opted to defend individuals in “terrorism” cases have been targeted with prosecution.
In its 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department, citing human rights organizations, said that as of November 2022, Turkish authorities “had prosecuted more than 1,600 lawyers, arrested 615, and sentenced 551 to lengthy prison terms on terrorism-related charges since the 2016 coup attempt.”
Authorities have charged people, including members of parliament, with supporting terrorism merely for sharing news articles on social media advocating peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey.
Turkey Tribunal, a Belgium-based nongovernmental organization set up to adjudicate human rights violations in Turkey, said Turkey’s courts have failed to protect fundamental rights, “leaving citizens under the arbitrary exercise of power by the Executive.”
In February 2020, Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, called on Turkey to restore judicial independence, saying the rule of law in the country was severely threatened.
Mijatovic said Turkish authorities needed to reverse the measures implemented under the post-coup state of emergency, which had “devastating consequences on judicial independence and impartiality and threatened the rule of law and human rights in Turkey.”
Mijatovic further expressed alarm that Turkey’s judiciary had displayed “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law,” particularly in terrorism-related cases.
During the PBS interview, Nawaz asked Erdogan about the prosecution of Osman Kavala, an activist and philanthropist who was sentenced to life in prison in July 2022 for financing anti-government protests.
Amnesty International said the prosecuting authorities had "repeatedly failed to provide any evidence” substantiating “the baseless charges” that Kavala, who had been involved in civil society projects for decades, was “attempting to overthrow the government.”
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Europe’s highest court, concluded that the “arrest and pre-trial detention took place in the absence of evidence to support a reasonable suspicion he had committed an offense.”
The court found that Turkey had essentially prosecuted Kavala “to reduce him to silence as a human rights defender.”
The ECHR called on Turkey to immediately release Kavala, citing the violations that occurred in his prosecution.
Although Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and was bound to follow the court’s decision, Turkish authorities refused to release Kavala.
In July 2022, the court, for only the second time in its 63-year history, initiated infringement proceedings against Turkey for not abiding by its ruling.
Helen Duffy of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, said the ruling “is an acknowledgment of Turkey’s ever-deepening rule of law crisis."
The World Justice Project, a Washington-based international civil society organization seeking to "advance the rule of law around the world," ranked Turkey 116th out of 140 countries in its 2022 Rule of Law Index.