Tension rises between Turkey and ECHR

Of the Council of Europe’s member countries, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Russia qualify as “major donors”. They were joined this year by Turkey, with a contribution to the council’s 455-million euro 2017 budget of 33.8 million euros.

Relations between Turkey and the Council have been fraught for some time, but will be all the more tense thanks to the decision by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to present the Vaclac Havel Human Rights Award to Murat Arslan, the former head of the Judges and Prosecutors’ Union jailed on charges of links to Fethullah Gülen, the man accused of plotting to overthrow the government in last year’s failed coup.

In a letter to the Council of Europe General Secretary Thorbjörn Jagland, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu informed the organisation that Turkey no longer wished to continue as a major donor. 

By doing so, Turkey has removed a source of income from the council at a time when it is already experiencing serious financial difficulties. This has raised fears, particularly that operations of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a body of the 47-member Council of Europe, would be adversely affected as a result.

Turkey is a country that has accepted the ECHR’s authority, recognised the precedence of that court’s decisions over its own domestic laws on matters of rights and freedoms, and ratified its supplementary protocols.

Between 2006 and 2012, the number of ECHR cases against Turkey rose steadily each year from 2,328 to 9,098, before dropping to 3,505 in 2013, and to 2,212 in the year 2015. Yet in 2016 this number leapt to 8,308. It is clear that this number will rise again in 2017. 

A very similar trend was also evident in the amounts of compensation demanded from Turkey by ECHR decisions during the same period.

The highest number of fines came from infractions of the European Convention on Human Rights in the areas of freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. Turkey has, by a long way, the highest number of human rights violations among European countries.

The ECHR has, to date, passed 656 judgements for violations of freedoms of expression. Of those, 265 relate to Turkey.

Meanwhile, in the first one-and-a-half years of presidency, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has opened 1,845 cases against Turkish citizens accused of insulting him.

Turkey is now at 99th place out of 113 countries on the World Rule of Law index.

According to the council, Turkey has also often failed to pay the compensation set by the ECHR on time. This constitutes another violation of rights.

Since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, there has also been a significant rise in the number of individual applications to Turkey’s Supreme Court.

The right of individuals to apply for their cases to be heard at Turkey’s highest court was introduced in 2012, with an aim of raising standards and better protecting basic rights and freedoms, and allowing infractions in these areas to be dealt with in Turkey without going to the ECHR.

There are 67,434 individual cases pending at the Supreme Court. A striking detail about this statistic is that more than 40,000 of these cases were opened since July 15, 2016 against actions taken by the government during the ongoing state of emergency.

However, the Supreme Court has been effectively rendered non-functional, particularly in regards to the arrests and arbitrarily long detention of journalists, a situation that eliminates press freedom. So, individuals are left in a situation of legal insecurity.

Clearly, some of the government’s actions, taken out of anxiety, fear or rage, have endangered legal security and social peace. However, it is the fact that the judiciary is unable to check this behaviour that makes the situation unbearable for victims.

The Supreme Court’s inability to exert its authority has led to the rise in applications to the ECHR since 2016 and so the ECHR’s ability to quickly try cases becomes ever more important.

The ECHR’s history over the last 15 months, and particularly its sluggishness in dealing with detentions has given rise to violations against freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. That constitutes a damning condemnation of the court’s effectiveness and reliability.

The length of time afforded to the state to prepare its defence, and extensions to those periods, have resulted in lengthy detentions.

The ECHR must demonstrate its efficacy and influence on the vital matters of freedom of expression, the public right to information, and the right to a fair trial.

The government, however, wishes to implement the state of emergency in order to remain free of any internal or external legal controls. This means depriving its own citizens of legal protection.