ECHR head criticised for visiting Turkey, meeting Erdoğan

(Updates story with lawyer comments in seventh paragraph, HRW in last)

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) President Robert Spano met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other top officials during a visit to Ankara on Thursday, and delivered a speech on the rule of law, drawing criticism from lawyers and rights groups. 

Speaking at the Justice Academy of Turkey, Spano delivered a lecture on the importance of an independent judiciary.

“The rule of law...demands that laws are clear, not vague and open to abuse, that laws are not applied retroactively...and that laws be interpreted and applied by independent and impartial institutions,” said Spano, the first ECHR head to make an official visit to Turkey, according to an ECHR transcript. 

“Those in power cannot therefore control the courts,” he said. “No man or woman is above the law.”

However, Spano stopped short of highlighting the government's treatment of some lawyers, including those on hunger strike in prison demanding fair trials, nor did he mention recent regulations on bar associations many lawyers criticise for undermining judicial independence.

On Aug. 27, lawyer Ebru Timtik died after a 238-day hunger strike following her conviction in 2019 for membership of a terrorist organisation.

“After reading this speech one can but think that Judge Spano does not believe that Turkey has serious human rights and rule of law problems,” said human rights lawyer Kerem Altıparmak on Twitter. “There exist some minor problems but all of them can easily be solved by the training of young judges. Good luck!”

In a February report, the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, called on Turkey to restore judicial independence and stop the practice of targeting human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists. 

The Turkish judiciary displays “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as presumption of innocence”, the Council of Europe said in the report, which was published in the same week that philanthropist Osman Kavala was arrested within hours of his acquittal for crimes linked to the mid-2013 Gezi protests. 

Turkey ranked 109th out of 126 countries in the 2019 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index and has been widely denounced for being one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, unjustly imprisoning political opponents like Selahattin Demirtaş and detaining tens of thousands of people with questionable links to the 2016 failed coup. 

Spano met with Erdoğan and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül at the presidential palace. No statements were released on what was discussed in the 45-minute meeting. 

Some observers saw the visit as giving tacit approval to the perceived crimes of Erdogan’s government.

“A black day in the history of Europe and the ECHR,” political science professor George Mastropavlos said on Twitter. 

Lawyer Veysel Ok, speaking on an Ahval podcast on Thursday, said Spano had not made plans to meet with lawyers, NGOs or other human rights organisations.

"Meeting only one side in Turkey casts a shadow over the impartiality of the judge," said Ok.

Turkey’s KHK legal union on Thursday called on Spano to denounce Turkey’s problematic judiciary and urge the government to release thousands imprisoned unjustly. 

Spano also visited the Turkish parliament and met with the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly Mustafa Şentop. He was expected to receive an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University on Friday.

Emma Sinclar-Webb, Turkey director of Human Rights Watch, said it was “astonishing to think” Spano planned to accept a doctorate from a university that “summarily dismissed scores of academics … in an unlawful way”.

“Think again, Judge Spano,” she said on Twitter.