ECHR head Spanó receives honorary doctorate in Istanbul amid condemnations

(Updates with reactions throughout)

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) President Róbert Spanó received an honorary doctorate from the Istanbul University on Friday, despite calls for him to decline the title.

Spanó had met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other top officials in capital Ankara on Thursday, and spoken at the Justice Academy of Turkey on the importance of an independent judiciary.

Journalists were not allowed into the hall where Istanbul University Senate presented the ECHR head with the title, and followed Spanó’s speech from a separate room over video link.

In his acceptance speech, Spanó said it had “long been a tradition as a matter of protocol” to accept such titles.

“The Court must always be seen to be independent and impartial and not making distinctions between Member States,” Spanó said.

Spanó emphasised the importance of academic freedom and freedom of expression, saying, “These are core values which lie at the heart of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Spanó accepted “this distinction in the name of the protection of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” He said:

“Secondly, I have accepted to receive this distinction today because it gives me the opportunity to publicly discuss the importance of university teaching in the field of human rights and, in particular, to the teaching of the European Convention on Human Rights. Universities play an indispensable role in the dissemination and promotion of human rights values and universities should be a fora for free and robust debate on all issues of social concern.”

“We could also award the honorary title of ‘General’ to Spanó,” said professor of law Dr Mehmet Cemil Ozansü, who was among some 200 academics expelled via presidential order from Istanbul University during the state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, in an interview with news website Bianet.

Ozansü said Spanó had “accepted praise from an institution that enacted so many unlawful and politically motivated expulsions and ignored the cases that he will soon be asked to rule on as a judge,” adding that the university had also granted the honorary title to Kenan Evren, the general who headed the 1980 military coup in Turkey and served as a military president for several  years afterwards.

Mustafa Yeneroğlu, deputy chairman for justice policy in Turkey’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) founded by former Erdoğan ally Ali Babacan, said Spanó “not being allowed to meet with representatives from human rights organisations” had been “an attempt by the government to keep (Spanó) separated from facts.”

Turkish citizens submitted the second highest number of applications to the ECHR in 2019, and the court found in 97 out of the 113 rulings it issued on Turkey last year that the country had violated at least one article of the convention, Yeneroğlu said, while the Constitutional Court (AYM) refused to implement 184 ECHR judgementsin 2019.

Róbert Spanó’s meeting with Erdoğan “cheapened the neutrality of the ECHR,” lawyer Ali Nadir Dönmez said in a tweet, citing Erdoğan’s refusal to recognise an ECHR ruling on jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş. “A contradiction whichever way you slice it!” Dönmez said.

Former ECHR judge  Rıza Türmen told Bianet that Spanó was “very familiar with the human rights issues in Turkey,” due to his current and former position within the top human rights court.

“Looking at (Spanó’s speech at the TJA), one can see that he is not visiting only out of courtesy,” Türmen said, adding that Spanó had a message to give on the rule of law in Turkey.

Spanó’s visit is likely to have an effect on the AYM with regards to the implementation of ECHR rulings, Türmen said.

In his speech, Spanó cited several ECHR rulings on Turkey, to emphasise the role of the academic world in democracies, as well as critical and independent thought. “There can be no democracy without debate and dissent,” he said. “Society cannot progress without critical engagement by its citizens.”

"Spanó said, 'The government can't control the judiciary,' as he left a meeting with the people who control the judiciary," journalist Can Dündar said in an article on Friday. "He did not mention those who died in prisons seeking justice, nor visited those who were victimised by the ignored rulings of his court."