Terfi [ter-FIH], noun. promotion
It looked as though the Turkish government might be turning a corner, putting aside its authoritarian instincts and breathing new life into its European Union bid. First, parliament began debating a law that would block promotions for judges whose rulings have been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Then, less than a fortnight ago, on 5 December, deputies gathered to witness the swearing in of the country’s first-ever ombudsman, a post that is now a requirement for EU candidate countries.
The great day was overshadowed by controversy over the identity of the man parliament chose to do the job. The problem was not so much the fact that Mehmet Nihat Ömeroğlu—a former Supreme Appeals Court judge—felt the need to specify on his CV that he neither drinks nor smokes. Smoking is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pet hate—and drinking, well, drinking goes without saying. Even the fact that the prime minister was witness at the judge’s son’s wedding last year was not much of a challenge—nor that his son, a manager at the publicly-owned Turkish Airlines, has been rapidly promoted since tying the knot.
The cause of the controversy was the fact that Mr. Ömeroğlu was part of the Supreme Appeals Court committee that in 2006 found the Armenian–Turkish journalist and editor Hrant Dink guilty of “insulting Turkishness.” Dink had been prosecuted for a phrase he wrote in a February 2004 article about the need to “replace the poisonous blood associated with Turks with fresh blood associated with Armenia.” It was clear from the most cursory reading that no insult to “Turkishness” was intended. Dink was addressing the Armenian diaspora, not Turks. “Move on,” he was saying. “The Turkish state will not budge on the genocide. Concentrate on the future.” And that was what the prosecutor to the Supreme Appeals Court told the judges in his advice: “Let Dink go.” But the judgement took place against a backdrop of nationalist hysteria, with ultra-nationalist crowds baying racist slogans outside Dink’s offices in Istanbul, and prominent journalists and civilian and military officials encouraging the lynch mob. Twenty-three judges, including Mr. Ömeroğlu, ignored the expert reports and found Dink guilty. Dink took his case to the ECHR, which condemned Turkey in 2010—but by then Dink was dead, murdered in broad daylight by an 18-year-old nationalist who had read about the case.
Faced with a barrage of criticism from Turkey’s severely depleted opposition press since his appointment, Mr. Ömeroğlu has remained as cool as a cucumber. “We did a routine job on the file,” he told a reporter from the Turkish daily Radikal. “I knew about Hrant Dink from . . . the media, but I wasn’t even aware that the name on the file was Hrant Dink. In fact, it wasn’t. It was written Fırat Dink [a reference to a Turkified version of his name that Dink adopted in the 1970s to avoid trouble with the authorities]. We passed judgement on the file according to our consciences.”
Ignoring the implications of the last sentence, the statement is simply not credible for all sorts of reasons. Dink is a very rare surname in Turkey. Even if it was not, with ultra-nationalist mobs picketing the courts where Dink arrived to give evidence, and prominent media figures and civilian and military officials getting in on the action, everybody in the country knew about the case against him.
Furthermore, as Dink’s former lawyer and the former Supreme Appeals Court prosecutor (who was incidentally demoted to a position in the provinces not long after the Dink case) have both pointed out, the files the Supreme Appeals Court judges received contained both names. Then there is the fact that in a separate statement, Mr. Ömeroğlu assured reporters that he had read all eight sections of the long article by Dink that ended in the phrase he was prosecuted for. Dink always signed his articles “Hrant,” not “Fırat.”
Mr. Ömeroğlu’s most hostile words came after an opposition deputy proposed taking the issue of his appointment to the European Court of Human Rights. “This is an insult not to my person, but to the Turkish state and government,” he said. “What sort of a deputy is this? This attempt to blacken the name of the Turkish state in this fashion is deeply upsetting. Don’t tar our state with this sort of complaint. This would be to incriminate not me personally but the state itself. I am nothing but an employee of the Turkish state, working honorably, carrying out what the laws require.” Five mentions of the state in six sentences: not bad from a man charged with representing the public interest.