Turkey moving away from rule of law – The sentencing of five Turkish journalists to life imprisonment shows that the Turkish judiciary cannot make independent decisions

by Otmar Lahodynsky, President of Association of European Journalists (AEJ)

The release on bail of Deniz Yücel, Turkey correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, after being held for a year without charge in a high-security prison, cannot be taken as evidence of a freely-functioning Turkish judiciary. Yücel, now in Germany, still faces the threat of up to 18 years in jail for “encouraging terrorism”.

On the same day, six defendants, five of them journalists, were sentenced to life in prison for “attempting to abolish the Turkish constitution” and also for encouraging terrorist acts.

Two of them, the brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, are prominent figures: one is a writer and political columnist, the other an economics professor at a university in Istanbul. Mehmet Altan was accused of broadcasting “subliminal messages” on television about the impending July 2016 military coup. One of his lawyers explained to me what this accusation was based on: the statement made on the day before the coup attempt in a TV station that Erdogan would not rule forever; this was taken as proof of insider knowledge of preparations for the coup. Altan’s statement was also falsified by the prosecutors.

Further evidence of Mehmet Altan’s complicity with the preacher Fetullah Gülen, allegedly the man behind the coup, was said to be a one-dollar bill found in Altan’s wife’s handbag. Because of its mysterious symbols, the dollar bill was taken to be proof that Altan was a support of Gülen’s movement.

The extent to which the Turkish judiciary is dependent on politics is also demonstrated by a dispute between different courts. In January 2018, the Turkish Constitutional Court ordered the release of Mehmet Altan, pointing out that his constitutional rights had been violated. An Istanbul High Criminal Court then refused to release Altan because the Constitutional Court had supposedly exceeded its powers. The fact that judgements of the Constitutional Court are no longer recognized by lower-ranking courts is another indication of how far Turkey has drifted away from the rule of law.

More than 150 Turkish journalists are still in prison, most still waiting for the charge against them. Media lawyers report that in some indictments entire passages from other cases are identical: the “copy and paste” method apparently saves time.

It is high time that the Council of Europe in Strasbourg – of which Turkey is a member – takes action. So far, the Court of Human Rights has accepted only a small number of complaints from Turkish journalists, often pointing out that nothing can be done until the appeal has been heard in the Turkish courts. But as is becoming evident, the Turkish judiciary is no longer either free or impartial.

The EU recently invited Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan to a special summit in Varna, Bulgaria. EU diplomats are hopeful that Turkey now seeks better relations with the EU. But that will not be possible as long as journalists and academics are sentenced to life imprisonment on the flimsiest of charges.

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