Turkish judiciary association head Murat Arslan sentenced to 10 years

The head of Turkish judicial association YARSAV was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Friday, after a trial the European Judges for Democracy and Liberty (MEDEL) said lacked transparency and failed to meet the criteria for a due process of law.

YARSAV head Murat Arslan was arrested on October 19, 2016, and charged with membership of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation,” or “FETÖ,” the Turkish government’s name for a religious movement led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen that is blamed for the coup attempt in July 2016.

While many in Turkey believe followers of Gülen to have infiltrated state institutions including the judiciary since the 1990s, critics of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government say it used the atmosphere of paranoia after the coup attempt to clear the country of legitimate political opposition during a state of emergency that lasted two years.

Arslan’s activities as head of YARSAV, including observation of political trials, newspaper interviews focusing on the country’s rule of law, and participation in civil society organisations, resulted in his dismissal from his post as an assistant judge at Turkey’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, in August 2015.

His arrest in October 2016 was followed by over two years in prison pending trial, during which, MEDEL’s report said, he was held in an overcrowded cell holding 16 prisoners but only eight beds.

Extensions of his detention were made automatically without any court hearing, and Arslan’s repeated requests for release during the trial were rejected, despite a lack of concrete evidence against him and changing testimony from witnesses, the report said.

The trial, too, was littered with irregularities. The presiding judge was changes four times, without explanation on three occasions, and incoming judges, MEDEL’s report said, did not hear previous witnesses in the trial again despite requests from the defence.

One witness reportedly testified against Arslan before a different court during the trial, without the presence of Arslan’s legal team. The identity of the witness was not disclosed, MEDEL’s report said.

Arslan was awarded the Vaclav Havel Prize for Human Rights in 2017. His acceptance speech, in which he said Turkey’s rule of law had been “suspended,” was read before the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, France.

The Turkish government denounced the Council of Europe for “honouring a terrorist” on the same evening, and a month later announced its decision to reduce its funding to the council.