Growing controversies taint ECHR President Spano's Turkey visit

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) President Robert Spano's controversial visit to Turkey this week is playing a legitimising role for Turkish violations of human rights and basic freedoms, critics told Ahval. 

Spano visited Turkey for the opening of the judicial year, meeting with the top officials of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan and Spano met for 45 minutes on Friday, without any readout of the meeting being released.

So far, Spano has not meet with Turkey's critical media nor human rights organisations, which are operating under very difficult circumstances in the country. 

There are two main reasons that make Spano’s visit controversial, according to Ahval's editor-in-chief, Yavuz Baydar .

One is that Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and signatory of the European Treaty for Human rights for many decades, Baydar said in a video podcast. However, from the perspective of the Rule of Law and the independence of judiciary, Turkey is utterly a problematic country, particularly since the July 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent two-year state of emergency rule. There are, according to Human Rights Watch, about 50,000 political prisoners currently rotting in Turkey’s jails. 

Spano also accepted an honorary doctorate by the Istanbul University, one of oldest universities of Turkey, tainted in recent years due to brutal purge pursued by the university following the failed putsch, which led to the dismissal of about 200 respected academics from the institution.

Therefore, critics say, this is a legal case, as the dismissed academics have gone to the administrative court to demand their rights back, a case, which extended to the European Human Rights. As such, the university is a side in this case, which the judge is currently overseeing, Baydar said.

Despite these serious challenges and warnings, Spano did not listen to the advice of his peers, European politicians and others about the visit, Baydar added.

Spano's visit raised even more eyebrows as he also met with officials from the Constitutional Court, parliamentary speaker, the Court of Cassation and more importantly the presidential palace. 

Spano delivered his messages at the Justice Academy on Friday, Baydar said, noting, "the speech was a blib."

"Spano talked about the independence of the judiciary, and that the political executive should not intervene in the courts, etc. These things that are already known by heart by those who follow and were said many times for years and certainly fell on deaf ears," he said.

The routine visit could have been made in a different frame, Baydar explained. For example, the visit to the palace should have never been made in the first place.

"Those messages conveyed to Erdoğan many times in the past, telling him to go back to the rule of law and restore the independence of the judiciary for years. What was the point of meeting him behind the doors with no readout of the meeting?"

Meanwhile, while Spano's visit continues on Saturday, as AKP's senior officials voice support for bringing back the capital punishment, reportedly working on a draft. 

Meanwhile, why Spano did not meet with opposition officials, human rights organisations, Turkey's independent media remains a question begging an answer.

If Spano wanted to give clear messages, he could have met with different parts of Turkey segments or could have given a clear message to Ankara by giving an interview to some critical media.

Finally, there was also another scandal during Spano's speech at the Istanbul University, where he received the honorary doctorate.

Everywhere in the world, such a doctorate reception would include students, because the doctorate holder would address students. But no students were invited to the hall, only a select group of academicians were present. Press reporters were also escorted out of the room at the request of the judge.

He reportedly cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for their absence, even though the university had prepared seats in a socially distanced manner for the press, Baydar said.

One of chief judge's reported activities to visit Imam-Hatip school in southeastern city of Mardin. ECHR's current Turkish judge Saadet Yüksel organised the visit which was attended by Ms. Yüksel's elder brother and former AKP deputy at the Parliament Cüneyt Yüksel. The school is named and built for the memory of Yüksels' late parents. 

Under the 17-year leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, himself an İmam Hatip graduate, the schools have catapulted in number - from 450 when he came into power, to over 5,000 today. 

Erdoğan increased the budget for religious education in 2018 by 68 percent, to $1.5 billion.

İmam Hatip
A tweet, later deleted, showing photos of Chief Judge Spano visiting Imam Hatip religious school, along with ECHR's Turkish Judge Yüksel and her elder brother, former AKP deputy Cüneyt Yüksel. The school is named after the Yüksels' parents.