Turkish courts fully under political control – FH scholar

Ahval discussed the Turkish legal system with Freedom House's project director Nate Schenkkan on Friday, the same day that six journalists were handed life sentences by Turkish courts while another, the Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, was allowed to go free after being held in pre-trial detention for a year.

Today’s rulings clearly shows that the "system of justice in Turkey is fully under political," said Schenkkan.

"Deniz Yücel has been kept in custody for over year and has never been presented the evidence against him, so he had no opportunity to discuss or contest it at court,” continued Schenkkan. “while at the same time politicians in Turkey were constantly making political remarks about him.”

Yücel, a journalist at the German newspaper Die Welt, was arrested a year ago and accused of spreading terrorist propaganda after he reported that a Turkish minister’s email account had been hacked. He was held for a year in a Turkish prison without seeing any indictment for his case, and during this time Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused him of being a “terrorist” and a “spy,” and vowed to “make him pay” during a political rally.

The timing of Yücel’s release came shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and told a press conference that he was expecting developments on the Yücel case. 

The timing of his release shows that it “clearly was a political decision to imprison him, and a political decision to release him,” said Schenkkan.

"In the same way, we have seen a set of political decisions about how the courts have handled the cases against the Altan brothers and Nazlı Ilıcak," said Schenkkan.

The journalists Mehmet and Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak were tried for attempting to “overturn the constitutional order” in a case related to the July 2016 failed coup attempt. The defendants were accused of being connected to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist cleric who allegedly masterminded the coup plot.

Turkey’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, had ruled that Mehmet Altan and another journalist should be released due to violations of their rights, but lower courts overturned the ruling to ensure they remained imprisoned.

"The evidence presented in these cases is unbelievably shoddy, it’s paper-thin, there is really nothing there," said Schenkkan. "We are seeing people given life sentences now because basically the government has decided now that it doesn't like them.”

One of biggest ironies, said Schenkkan, is that these same journalists had been on friendly terms with the current government until recently.

Schenkkan was pessimistic on the prospects for positive change in Turkey’s rule of law, "I dont see any improvement happening right now now and I dont expect improvement before the elections ... or even after elections, anticipate any loosening.”  

The pressure on Kurdish activists and followers of Gülen are “quite beneficial” for the current government, according to Schenkkan. “It forces the opposition into a very difficult position of having to defend the fundemental freedoms to be exercised by groups that are extremely unpopular in Turkish society."