ECHR chief may receive controversial honorary doctorate from Istanbul University

Róbert Spanó, the head of the European Court of Human Rights, may receive an honorary doctorate in law from Istanbul University this week, prompting criticism that the act would conflict with the court's stance and principles.

Spanó is due to visit Turkey this week for meetings and to give a lecture at the Justice Academy, according to a statement by the Turkish government.

Mehmet Altan, an academic who was fired from the university along with scores of other scholars then jailed for his alleged membership of a banned religious movement, said Spanó was due to receive the doctorate on Sept. 3, citing a successful initiative by Ergin Ergül, a judge appointed by Turkey to the ECHR.

Istanbul University was at the centre of a purge following a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016, firing 192 academics, according to the 2020 “Academic Achievement Change Report in Turkey” published by the U.S.-based Advocates of Silenced Turkey, a group of lawyers, judges, academics, journalists, and hundreds of activists advocating human rights and democratic values.

Altan urged Spanó not to accept the invite, calling the plans a “shock” in an open letter addressed to him and published on the website of Turkish journalism platform P24 on Monday.

“I do not know how much pride there is to be an honorary member of a university that condemns hundreds of lecturers to unemployment and poverty by unjustly expelling them from school,” Altan said.

Turkey accuses the outlawed religious movement of Fethullah Gülen of orchestrating the failed putsch and placing its acolytes in influential positions in academia, the armed forces, judiciary, police, civil service and the media.

The purge that followed led to the Turkish government dismissing more than 150,000 civil servants from state jobs and investigating almost 600,000 people, arresting a sixth of them under suspicion of ties to the Islamist movement.

Altan, who was accused by prosecutors of loyalty to Gülen, said he had been arrested in October 2016 and was not released immediately despite violations of the Turkish constitution surrounding the arrest. Altan said he learned of his dismissal from Istanbul University on TV in a prison cell.

He was eventually acquitted in November 2019 and filed a lawsuit against the university to overrule his expulsion.

“The university from which you will receive a doctorate is included as the "defendant institution" in the lawsuits of academics, like me, who were dismissed by decree,” he said, addressing Spanó. “These cases are still ongoing and it is likely that they will come before the ECHR, which you preside over.”

There have been more than 60,000 individual applications at the ECHR for violations of rights and freedoms in Turkey. The court has found Turkey at fault in many cases, especially in those against imprisoned journalists and rights defenders, according to Altan.

Altan’s open letter to Spanó is as follows:

"My open letter to Róbert Spanó, the president of the European Court of Human Rights

Dear President,

There are more than sixty thousand individual applications that have been lodged from Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey ranks second after Russia when it comes to violations of rights.

As you know, I am one of the citizens of the Republic of Turkey whose constitutional rights were disregarded. I said as you know because my application was reviewed by the 2nd Section, which at the time was under your presidency.

On 20 March 2018, the 2nd Section of the ECHR, presided over by you, set a precedent in universal law and ruled that my right to personal liberty and security and my freedom of expression had been violated. Turkey was convicted.

I thank you and the Court you now preside over for this judgment. Law prevailed.

Dear President,

Your judgment concerning me has a place in ECHR's history:

Ergin Ergül, who was appointed on behalf of Turkey to that case and was the only judge dissenting, put forward such arguments that you wrote "a dissenting vote" against a dissenting vote, for the first time in the history of ECHR, if I am not mistaken. And the other members followed you.

It was announced that on September 3 2020 you will be visiting Turkey as the Minister of Justice's guest.

But what took me aback was to find out that you will be receiving an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University.

I am reminding of the detail above exactly for this reason, to give information on the state of "the judiciary" and "law education."

 I wonder if you keep in mind that Ergin Ergül, against whom, in the name of universal law you found yourself having to cast a dissenting opinion, is a graduate of Istanbul University which will be awarding you an honorary doctorate?

Your secretariat certainly must have informed you that Istanbul University had given an honorary doctorate of law to Kenan Evren too.

Dear President,

I taught for 30 years at Istanbul University, where you will be receiving a "honorary law doctorate." And I became a professor there 27 years ago.

I heard on television that I had been dismissed from the university through a statutory decree on 29 October 2016, while I was in my cell in prison, a month after I was detained as a result of the violation of three articles of the constitution. The people who will be giving you an honorary doctorate are the very people who dismissed me and many other academics.

I was not released despite the Constitutional Court's judgment finding violations of three separate constitutional rights and ordering my release. To top it off, right afterwards I was sentenced to aggravated life in prison. Even after the judgment by the ECHR, presided over by you, held that there had been a violation of my rights, the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice upheld my conviction. I mean to say that the event of such judicial scandals is not unusual.

Ultimately however, on 4 November 2019, I was acquitted and my acquittal became final after the Court of Cassation ruled for my acquittal.

But my ongoing case concerning my dismissal from the university is still waiting to be taken up by the Ankara 21st Administrative Court. In that case, the accused is Istanbul University, where you will be receiving your honorary doctorate.

Despite being acquitted, despite the judgments by the Constitutional Court and the ECHR, I have not been able to return to my university where you will be receiving an honorary doctorate.

The university from which you will be receiving your doctorate, is "the accused institution" in the trials brought by many academics who were dismissed through a statutory decree as I was.

These proceedings are ongoing and it is likely that they will also be brought before the ECHR that you preside over. But in the meantime you will have become a Judge who has received an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University. I'm not sure how gratifying it would be to become a honorary member of a university, which has unjustly kicked out and forced into unemployment and poverty hundreds of academics.

Under normal circumstances, of course it would be pleasing to hear that you will be visiting Turkey. Unfortunately that's not the case.

Dear President,

The ECHR, under your presidency, guarantees protection of the freedoms and rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

We want to believe that ECHR of which you are the president secures the rights of everyone under its jurisdiction.

It is hard to say that our faith always remains intact.

The very section of the Court that you presided had given priority status to the application of Ahmet Altan, whose novels have been published in 23 countries, and who, even despite the Covid-19 pandemic has remained behind bars in Silivri Prison for the past four years. Even though the court is very much familiar with the file's content, unfortunately we have been waiting for that priority to come into effect for the past four years.

And of course we are very much aware of the efforts being made to prevent the review of Ahmet Altan's application and to ensure that no definitive judgment finding rights violations is made when it is taken up. But just as this is not the appropriate place to discuss this, I rather not comment on this further.

Indisputably, you are free to make your own choices. And it is clear that every one of your choices will reflect onto future decisions and bring forth new consequences.

I would like to extend an early welcome to Turkey, where you will be visiting as the President of an international high court, built upon a convention, to which victims of the judiciary have high hopes attached.


Mehmet Altan"