How Erdoğan uses Turkey’s courts as a weapon - Prof. Henri Barkey

Turkish courts have been weaponised by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Henri Barkey, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Wednesday.

Writing for the Washington Post, Barkey said the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the case of jailed writer Ahmet Altan had “illuminated the utter debasement of the Turkish justice system”.

Altan was sentenced to life in prison in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”. Prosecutors alleged the journalist and author had sent “subliminal messages” to the public ahead of the 2016 failed military coup. His sentence was later reduced to ten years and six months for “aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation without being a part of its hierarchical structure”.

The ECHR ruled this week that there was no evidence to support the prosecutors’ assertions and Altan’s continued detention violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Local courts have, however, repeatedly refused to comply with the ECHR.  

The case was just one of many examples of how Erdoğan “has systematically transformed the Turkish judiciary into a coercive instrument permanently on the offensive”, Barkey said. “The aim is to stifle any dissent or criticism of (Erdoğan) or his policies with the ultimate aim of eliminating all restraints on executive power.”

Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, is also facing prosecution in relation to the 2016 coup attempt, alongside imprisoned philanthropist and human rights advocate Osman Kavala. “The accusation emanates from a spurious coincidence - that I happened to be in Istanbul on that fateful coup weekend heading a seminar on Iran and had a chance encounter with Kavala at a restaurant a few days later,” Barkey said.

Kavala remains in prison despite repeated calls by the ECHR for his release. Altan, however, was unexpectedly released on Wednesday after his conviction was overturned by Turkey's Court of Cessation. But having been freed and rearrested before, doubts remain over his future.

“The system’s genius lies not just in its arbitrariness but also in its unpredictability,” Barkey said. “To be a critic means to live on borrowed time as one can never foresee when the state apparatus will be mobilised to persecute and harass someone or for what reason.”