Turkish justice minister stands up for presumption of innocence

The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle in both Turkey’s constitution and international treaties the country is party to, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said on Friday, speaking at a film festival.

The minister said he had been “double excited”, state-run Anadolu Agency reported, to attend the International Crime and Punishment Film Festival, which ran under the tagline, “I am innocent”.

“We are aware of the delicate balance between criminal procedures and rights and freedoms,” Gül said in his speech given over video conference. “The main goal of this judicial procedure is that the criminal justice system operates rightly and justly, without causing any rights violations.”

“We can’t ever accept or risk innocent citizens getting hurt as we fight crime and criminality,” said the minister. “Justice that separates the wheat from the chaff, the innocent from the criminal is the foundation of the state, and the fundamental goal of the law. The right to not be smeared is an important reform to this end.”

Turkey has enacted reforms that have allowed law enforcement to dismiss 120,389 cases out of 172,633 complaints since Jan. 1 this year, because “not all complaints are enough to make ‘suspects’ out of somebody,” Gül said.

A justice system that assumes guilt in a suspect cannot be just or reliable, the minister said.

In the past, the presence of doubt did not work in favour of suspects because justice was “instrumentalised”, and certain factions in the judiciary criminalized people with fake evidence and made-up charges, manipulating the public.

“Militants in the guise of judges,” Gül said, referring to followers of Islamic preacher and former ally of the government Fethullah Gülen, “attempted to trample the law, but we are determined to uphold to the highest level with the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial.”

Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, stands accused of having orchestrated the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Before the coup attempt, Gülen was accused of having placed his followers in key positions in the judiciary, law enforcement and army. Tens of thousands of public servants have been sacked since the coup attempt over alleged ties to the preacher, often on little evidence.

Gül's remarks come after a founding member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç's TV interview in which Arınç called on Turkish judges and prosecutors to be fair, and stop the practice of long pre-trial detentions. Critics in Turkey routinely and commonly jailed while waiting for their indictment or trials.

In a speech last week, Gül had said, “Let justice be served, even if all hell breaks loose,” urging members of the judiciary to “disregard any advice, order or suggestion,” and issue rulings based solely on “the case, the judge’s conscience, the law, and the constitution.”

“Justice should never take what it couldn’t give back in case of mistakes,” the minister had said, stressing the importance of the rule of law.