Turkish government critics call on ECHR President to resign following Turkey visit

On September 4, the Icelandic/Italian judge Robert Spano, who has served as President of the European Court of Human Rights since May, received an honourary doctorate from the University of Istanbul. The award followed meetings with top government officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Justice Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament.

Spano’s decision to accept the award was immediately criticised on social media by users who pointed out that the university had purged over 200 academics from the institution in the years following the failed 2016 coup attempt. The purging of academics considered critical of the Turkish government was one part of a widespread purge of public institutions which saw over 125,000 people fired.

Former Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said that Spano was “not fit to preside over the ECHR” after accepting the award.

Political scientist and academic Cengiz Aktar, meanwhile, called Spano’s visit “scandalous” and criticised the fact that the judge visited Mardin without meeting anybody from the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose elected mayor of the city was replaced by the Turkish government. Aktar called on Spano to resign, and started the #SpanoResign hashtag on Twitter.

Many Turkish social media users including Lawyer Yaman Akdeniz suggested that Spano should never have accepted the honourary doctorate, but that since he chose to do so, he should now resign.

Exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar commented that Spano had destroyed the 30 year reputation of the ECHR in three days. 

Meanwhile MEP Kati Piri said with his activities in Turkey, Judge Spano had politicised the ECHR.

Spano’s visit may have endeared him to the Turkish government, but his decision not to meet with any opposition figures, human rights organisations or lawyers to discuss the ongoing political persecution of government critics has angered many Turks online. Government critics like HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala remain in prison, despite ECHR verdicts that their sentences were unsound.

From a public relations point of view, Spano’s visit is a huge disappointment to people seeking justice for political repression in Turkey and casts doubt, in the eyes of the government’s critics, on whether the new ECHR President can act as a neutral party in calling for Turkey to respect its citizens’ rights.