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A Judicial Coup

Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP party may move to reduce the powers of the judiciary
The signs were growing this month that Turkey’s quiet revolution may have begun to eat its own children, as the government hastily amended a law to prevent courts questioning close allies of Prime Minister Erdogan in the country’s national intelligence agency.

Parliament voted the amendment through on 16 February, just over a week after prosecutors had issued a summons against national intelligence (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan as a suspect in a long-running terrorism investigation.

Prosecutors said they wanted to talk to Fidan, an appointee and close confidant of the Prime Minister, about MIT’s infiltration of a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a group which has waged a 30-year war against Turkey.

The Turkish police and the courts have been doing politics for years.But the police report they were acting on concentrated on discussions senior MIT officials held with the PKK about a possible ceasefire, leading to suspicions that the summons was part of a plot to sabotage a peace process that hard-liners believe has offered too many concessions to Kurds.

Cengiz Candar, a prominent political analyst, calls the summons a “judicial coup” against government-sponsored talks with the PKK that lasted three years until 2011.

“It is laughable,” he says. “Is the government supposed to get permission from the courts before it makes policy decisions? Both the police and the courts have started doing politics.”

In fact, the Turkish police and the courts have been doing politics for years. All that the Fidan affair shows is that the marriages of convenience that the government had contracted with various parts of the state as part of its push to overthrow the old regime appear to be breaking down.

When it came to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had only the police—traditionally sympathetic to its conservative Muslim politics—as a potential ally. The rest of the state, the army, the courts, MIT, was deeply suspicious of it.

More than that, they tried to bring it down. Secret documents that began to be leaked in 2006 make it clear that there were military plots to overthrow the government in 2003 and 2004. In 2008, a top prosecutor tried to close the AKP down.

Gradually, however, the government—bolstered by success in the polls—began to change the balance of power in its favor. MIT was taken out of the hands of the military. Widely criticized as a pillar of human rights abuses during the 1990s, the State Security Courts (DGM), with their military judges, were closed down in 2004.

A year later, the government introduced new Special Authority Courts (OYM), identical in pretty much every way to the old DGM, except that they didn’t have a military contingent.

One of the new ‘super-prosecutors’ attached to the OYM immediately began investigating two military officers who had been caught red-handed throwing a grenade into a Kurdish bookshop.

“It was the first shot in the war for control between the old elite and the new one,” says Orhan Gazi Ertekin, a judge and prominent commentator.

The government backed special prosecutors to start a massive investigation into alleged coup plots in 2007, using a new vaguely-worded Anti-Terror Law that its own supporters had criticized when they legislated it in 2006. Nearly five years on, over a hundred people, including several former four-star generals, are on trial in a high-security court outside Istanbul.

The government and its supporters continue to describe the investigation as an attempt to cleanse Turkey of the people who had turned the country into little better than a mafia state in the 1990s. For a while there was reason to believe them: many of the people arrested were gangsters and shady intelligence types known for the brutal role they had played in trying to quell the Kurdish rebellion, who were protected at the time by the omerta of the old regime.

From the start, however, there were questions about the way investigations were being prosecuted. Journalist Rusen Cakir describes the pro-government media, the police and the courts as working together “like judge, jury and executioner,” the police leaking incriminating evidence to the media, and the prosecutors then arresting and charging those incriminated.

Things began to go out of control. People who clearly had no relation whatsoever with organized crime were hauled in for questioning. A second investigation led by another group of special prosecutors has led to the arrest of at least one thousand Kurds accused of being linked to the PKK. A Kurdish party puts the number of arrests at 6000.

“Prosecutors’ indictments have become the political texts of the new regime,” Orhan Gazi Ertekin says. “The judiciary is playing the role that the army used to play, framing political action.”

And all the time, AKP chiefs have come out with the same tired old cliché that Turkish politicians have repeated for decades. “The judiciary is independent. We cannot get involved.”

That independence did not stop the prosecutor who summoned Hakan Fidan from being removed from the case.

But it remains to be seen whether the AKP will move to correct the legal and structural imbalances that have allowed the courts and the police to become so powerful.

Columnist Kursat Bumin says the time has come for a thorough-going rewriting of the laws on criminal procedure which define the authorities of special courts. He calls the founding of the Special Authority Courts a “typical piece of oriental cunning…. [that] needs to be scrapped.”

Interviewed in the daily Radikal on 17 February, government spokesman Huseyin Celik said the AKP had no immediate plans to get rid of the courts.

Having benefited so much from the status quo, it seems that the government is content for the moment with piece-meal reform.

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Nicholas Birch
Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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