Erdoğan lauds freedom in Turkey, vows to establish 24-hour criminal courts

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan revealed on Thursday a new round of legal reforms that he said reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to European Union accession.

The announcement came a day after the EU published its annual report on Turkey, a damning assessment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s progress on crucial areas for accession, including rule of law and basic rights and freedoms.

The Turkish president rejected the criticisms from Brussels, declaring that his government had been implementing the reforms “not because the EU wants us to, but to address the needs of our nation”.

This was a report that, Turkish writer Cengiz Aktar told Ahval on Thursday, proclaimed the death of an EU accession process that has been at a standstill since 2016. Yet Erdoğan, who has repeatedly threatened to pull Turkey out of negotiations during the country’s frequent election campaigns in recent years, reversed course this year to demand a revival to talks.

While the EU and other international institutions have levelled serious criticism at Ankara over the recent backslide in Turkey’s rule of law, there was no acknowledgement from Erdoğan of any of the grave concerns that led his country to 109th place out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project’s 2019 Rule of Law Index.

Rather, Erdoğan vowed to closely follow the implementation of a set of legal reforms based on two “fundamental perspectives”: rights and freedoms and the administration of the legal system.

These “perspectives” were subdivided into nine broad targets, which were again divided into 63 more specific goals and some 256 actions designed to realise them.

But legal experts have said the complex reforms promised in the document would be unnecessary if the government simply followed Turkey’s existing laws and international obligations.

“End the threats and political pressure against the members of the judiciary, let them do their jobs. Then there will be no need to your recommendations under the name of judicial reform,” said academic Yaman Akdeniz on Twitter.

“The judicial reform does not happen by writing a strategy document. It happens by implementing the law,” said Özkan Yücel, the head of the İzmir Bar Association.

“I felt like I was in wonderland,” said Eren Keskin, co-chair of Istanbul Human Rights Association, in an evaluation of the document. The reforms had already been required due to international conventions Turkey has signed, she added.

Among these is the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and “inhuman or degrading treatment” in its third article.

 “Turkey has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to torture. We have left claims of systematic torture behind us, and we are determined to protect our advances in this area”, Erdoğan said, referring to one of the first topics addressed in the 100-page document on the reforms released by the government on Thursday.

The AKP was commended during its early years in power for tackling systematic torture in Turkish security institutions. But recent reports, particularly since the government survived a coup attempt in 2016, have indicated a return of widespread torture.

“They have repeated zero tolerance to torture years ago, but today we have been witnessing torture acts. Just today, we have met a woman in custody who was subject to stand up-sit down torture when she was naked and five months pregnant,” Keskin said.

The July 2016 coup attempt, which the AKP blames on the outlawed Gülen religious movement, was followed by a two-year state of emergency under which tens of thousands were detained. The U.S. State Department’s annual reports on Turkey since then have noted instances of torture on those detainees.

This week, the Ankara Bar Association conveyed reports that former foreign ministry employees suspected of membership of the Gülen group had been tortured in custody.

Days before that, Amnesty International launched a campaign demanding independent medical care for detainees in the southeast Turkish province of Şanlıurfa after reports emerged of widespread torture of detainees.

Meanwhile, the huge number of detainees in Turkey – tens of thousands of whom are in prison awaiting trial – have made a massive expansion of the country’s prison network a necessity.

Erdoğan announced measures to speed up the procedures of the country’s strained criminal justice system, including the implementation of 24-hour criminal courts.

The reforms also promised an easing of the detentions and move towards allowing more defendants their freedom during the trial process.

Lawyer Fikret İlkiz told T24 news site that the reform strategy was merely the repetition of old promises. “Saying that power for detention will not be used arbitrarily is just a confession that those powers have been used disproportionately,” he said.

Erdoğan went on to declare the importance of freedom of expression and media freedom, lauding the “important steps” his government had taken in these areas over the past six years.

His words jarred with the warnings the Turkish government has received for its attitude to press freedom over period when the Committee to Protect Journalists has named Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists three years running.

“Lack of transparency of media funding, the growing influence of political interests on editorial policies, the concentration of media ownership, the shrinking space for pluralism and restrictions on freedom of expression, the lack of independence of regulatory authorities” were named as areas of concern in the EU’s country report this week.

The only concrete step to ease pressure on the media discussed by Erdoğan during the speech was the promise to modify internet censorship laws so that individual pages deemed problematic by Turkey’s censorship authority will be blocked rather than the entire website that hosts them.

At one point, Erdoğan raised a laugh from his audience when he said lawyers would be provided with green passports, a type granted to civil servants that allows visa-free travel to certain countries.

"But of course, not to all lawyers", the president added.

"As of January 2019, it is estimated that 1,546 lawyers have been prosecuted, including 274 who have been convicted of membership of a terrorist organisation. There are around 500 lawyers under arrest and awaiting trial", the EU's report said. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.