In a ruling Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights just illuminated the utter debasement of the Turkish justice system under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The court condemned the Turkish authorities for their handling of the case of Ahmet Altan, an elderly writer and intellectual who was initially sentenced to life imprisonment (since reduced to 10 years and six months) for allegedly participating in the attempted military coup in 2016. The ECHR ruling found “that there was no evidence that the actions of the applicant had been part of a plan to overthrow the government”. The court’s finding also noted that the prosecution failed to give Altan access to the government’s case against him in addition to other violations of basic due process.
The same could be said of any number of those imprisoned under the current regime. Erdogan has systematically transformed the Turkish judiciary into a coercive instrument permanently on the offensive. The aim is to stifle any dissent or criticism of him or his policies with the ultimate aim of eliminating all restraints on executive power.
In 2019 alone, some 36,066 people were investigated in Turkey for “insulting” the president. Of those cases, 12,298 resulted in prosecutions and 3,831 in convictions. One person was sentenced to 12 years and three months in prison for just seven social media contributions five years earlier.
Occasionally some judges may try to buck the trend. Yet such cases are rare, given that the judiciary operates on the direct instructions of an insecure president. If that isn’t enough, Erdogan routinely initiates personal court cases against opposition leaders on charges of defamation. The idea is to use the resources of the state to harass and intimidate opponents under the guise of legalism.
The system’s genius lies not just in its arbitrariness but also in its unpredictability. To be a critic means to live on borrowed time as one can never foresee when the state apparatus will be mobilized to persecute and harass someone or for what reason.
Last month, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, an opposition lawmaker and human rights campaigner, had his parliamentary membership summarily revoked because he was found guilty of supporting terrorism for retweeting a news article in 2016. A number of women who demonstrated on International Women’s Day (March 8) were arrested and charged for “insulting the president”.
Sometimes the outlandishness of the accusations can be breathtaking. Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet were originally charged for sending subliminal messages to the coup plotters on television. (Mehmet has since been released, but Ahmet, of course, remains in prison.)
The arbitrariness also extends to respecting the rulings of courts. Last month, prosecutors launched a criminal case against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest party in parliament. Its leader Selahattin Demirtas has been languishing in jail despite a 2020 ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court that his continued detention was unconstitutional and therefore had to be released. But the government ignored that decision by its own court as well as a similar ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. (It should be noted, by the way, that Turkey is bound by treaty to implement decisions of the ECHR.)
Erdogan has also ignored similar rulings regarding Osman Kavala, a civil society leader and philanthropist who has been the victim of manufactured charges for which there is no evidence whatsoever. When courts found no basis for the charges against him, new ones were invented. The author of this article is being tried along with Kavala; both of us stand accused of participating in (or leading) the failed July 2016 coup, with the prosecutor demanding three life terms as punishment. 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. The ECHR’s final judgment that Kavala must be released is just another ruling ignored.
No wonder that even the U.S. State Department has deemed it necessary to warn U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to Turkey because of the risk of “arbitrary detentions” based “on scant or secret evidence and grounds that appear to be politically motivated”.
Erdogan inhabits a rarified world defined at one end by the Italian autocrat Benito Mussolini, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes, who was obsessed with slights to himself. Mussolini spent hours scouring the press for any item relating to him. Erdogan apparently does the same.
The future does not augur well for Turkey. The erosion of constitutionalism and democracy through the use of arbitrary strategies will ultimately lead to the breakdown of state institutions. Once this happens it will almost be impossible to put them back together.
Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.