A Turkish farce called ‘rule of law’

Turkish courts have ruled on three cases involving journalists, for the most part delivering shock verdicts that underline the freefall of rule of law in Turkey.

Of the three cases, the only one with marginally good news involved Enis Berberoglu, with whom I worked during the 1980s at the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. Berberoglu was not just a colleague, but a friend. Last June, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of “helping a terrorist organisation,” “espionage” and “leaking secret state documents.”

Berberoglu’s sentence was reduced to 5 years, 10 months on February 13, which means he will serve at least 22 months more behind bars. His party, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), responded with shock.

Deniz Yucel, the German-Turkish correspondent for Die Welt, was released from prison February 16 after a year behind bars. Accused of using “terrorist propaganda to incite the population,” Yucel spent most of the year in solitary confinement while his lawyers waited for an indictment that never came.

His case became a national project for the German media as well as for members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet. As a German government spokesman pointed out after news that Yucel would be released, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had been “working intensively towards a solution.”

On a visit to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim unexpectedly said Yucel was likely to be released soon. Soon enough, it was announced that he would be freed but that was followed by news of his indictment. Yucel was to be charged with “spreading terrorist propaganda” and prosecutors sought up to 18 years in prison for him. The charges could mean one of two things: Yucel will either not be allowed to leave Turkey or if he left, he would not be able to return.

This should not be particularly puzzling, considering the Turkish judiciary is increasingly subordinate to political agendas. If rumours are true that dirty deals were struck to secure Yucel’s release, that sets a dangerous precedent.

It would also underline the farce that is called rule of law in Turkey. The director of the farce is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is also in some ways the author of the script.

In the third case, three of Turkey’s most prominent liberal journalists were sentenced to life in prison over allegations of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.

The sentences were handed down to Ahmet Altan, who is also a well-known novelist; his brother Mehmet Altan, a respected economist as well as journalist and author; and Nazli Ilicak, a centre-right thinker. They were the first journalists convicted in trials related to the failed 2016 coup. The Altan brothers and Ilicak, along with four other journalists, were on trial for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through use of force and violence.”

The Altans and Ilicak were initially arrested for “sending subliminal messages” via television appearances on July 14, 2016, the day before the attempted coup. After an international outcry, all three were instead accused of “making statements that are evocative of a coup.” The farcical elements of the case became more pronounced.

The harsh sentences stunned even those who warned about the increasingly precarious state of press freedom in Turkey.

Fittingly, it is Ahmet Altan who may have best summed up the state of affairs. In remarks addressed to the judges, he said:

”A judiciary that is dead or dying has such a foul stench; even hell doesn’t smell so bad. The smell of rotten corpses that has overtaken Turkey today is the smell of a judiciary on its deathbed. It is a stench that reaches all segments of society and appals everyone.”