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Turkey Judiciary Draws Fire for Continued Incarceration of Rights Activist

  • Dorian Jones

Human rights activists stage a protest outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 31, 2018, where a trial of eleven human rights activists, accused of belonging to and aiding terror groups, is ongoing.

Turkey’s judiciary is facing growing international condemnation for the ongoing imprisonment of the local head of Amnesty International.

Thursday, an Istanbul court reversed an earlier decision to release Taner Kilic from pre-trial detention, ruling he should remain in jail for the duration of his case. In a rare move, the prosecutor had turned to a second court to overturn Wednesday’s release order.

The dramatic succession of events has provoked international condemnation. “A disgrace and an outrageous travesty of justice,” Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty declared in a statement. In a similar vein, Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament wrote, “We deeply regret this situation and call for an immediate review of the decision.”

Kilic has been held for eight months on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization. Prosecutors claim an encryption software found on his phone linked him to followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed of being behind a 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. Gulen denies the charge.

Kilic is also accused, along with 10 other human rights activists, including two foreign nationals, of being part of a new conspiracy to overthrow the Turkish government. The 10 other defendants have all been released from pre-trial detention following an international campaign and intense diplomatic pressure.

Kilic's imprisonment has made him a focal point of growing concern about the treatment of human rights defenders. In a sign of the importance of the case, the Istanbul court Wednesday was packed with European diplomats and international human rights representatives.

Playing the system

“We're witnessing unusual legal maneuvers which are a reflection of the current dire state of the Turkish judicial system, as well as the erosion of the rule of law,” tweeted Kati Piri the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur.

Human rights activists stage a protest demanding the release of Amnesty International's Taner Kilic, outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 31, 2018.
Human rights activists stage a protest demanding the release of Amnesty International's Taner Kilic, outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 31, 2018.

But the Kilic case is also putting the spotlight on the EU stance towards Ankara, “It’s totally useless, to send tweets and sorry messages and raise concerns and more concerns about what is happening in Turkey. They should really think of something, else, for instance Turkey is still a candidate and negotiates its membership with the European Union, it’s a totally weird situation,” points out political scientist Cengiz Aktar, “the tolerance the regime enjoys in the West, this appeasement, is intimately linked to what is happening to the rule of law in Turkey.”

Since Turkey’s declared a state of emergency following the 2016 failed coup, concerns have been growing over the impartiality and functioning of its judiciary. More than 1,000 judges and prosecutors, including two members of the Constitutional Court, are among the 60,000 people arrested in the post-coup crackdown. Many more members of the judiciary have been fired. The government claims large parts of the judiciary had been infiltrated by supporters of the coup attempt.

Legal order challenged

The very structure of the judiciary is also in question. Last month, an Istanbul court ignored the judgment of the Constitutional Court to release journalists Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay, who have been in pre-trial detention for more than a year, accused of seeking to overthrow the government. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim backed the Istanbul court’s stance insisting it knew more about the case.

The move has caused alarm among legal experts, “If this trend continues, any government can use this as a "judicial" basis for not recognizing the decisions of the Constitutional Court. This means chaos. This chaos, unfortunately, has been encouraged by the politicians,” warns law professor Osman Can of Istanbul’s Marmara University and member of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights, of which Turkey is a member, is set to become embroiled in the ongoing controversy. The European Court remains the last legal means of redress for Turkish citizens. “There are so many violations of the European convention of human rights, if the court accepts all these cases, it will be overwhelming, it can virtually stop the work of the court. This is why the court is very cautious taking these cases,” claims political scientist Aktar.

In a move that has drawn criticism domestically and internationally, the European Court has refused to hear most cases in relation to the post-coup crackdown, arguing the defendants have to exhaust all judicial avenues in Turkey. That stance is predicted to be increasingly challenged with the power of Turkey’s Constitutional Court in question. “This can be interpreted as the loss of the effectiveness ... of the entire legal order, which in turn can cause very serious consequences for Turkey. In such a case, the problem becomes, now, one of international relations,” warns professor Can.

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