In aftermath of mass purge, nearly half of Turkey’s judges and prosecutors are inexperienced newcomers: report

Thousands of judges and prosecutors in Turkey have been sacked and replaced by inexperienced newcomers, Reuters reported, citing government data which revealed that at least 45 percent of the country’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less.

“Under his [Erdoğan’s] purge, thousands of judges and prosecutors have been sacked, by the government’s own count. They have been replaced by inexperienced newcomers, ill-equipped to handle the dramatic spike in workload from coup-related prosecutions. At least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors now have three years of experience or less, Reuters calculated from Ministry of Justice data.”

According to the report “[t]he judiciary has been used as an instrument to advance political agendas in Turkey for decades. Under Erdogan, his opponents say, it has been deployed as a political cudgel and hollowed out to an unprecedented degree.”

Drawing on the trial of two Kurdish politicians, former Diyarbakır Mayor Gültan Kışanak and former lawmaker Sebahat Tuncel, arrested and convicted on terrorism-related charges, Reuters summarized challenges the Turkish judiciary has been facing in recent years in the aftermath of a July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

“At the time of their arrest in late 2016, Kisanak and Tuncel were prominent figures in the Kurdish minority’s decades-long campaign for social, economic and political equality. Kisanak, 58, a former journalist, had recently been elected Diyarbakir’s mayor. Tuncel, 44, was a lawmaker in parliament, representing an Istanbul constituency. They were jailed for 14 and 15 years, respectively, for spreading terrorist propaganda and belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey and branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU. They denied the charges,” said the report.

“[M]ounting a proper defence was all but impossible because he [their lawyer] never knew who was going to be sitting in judgment. The judges, several of them young and inexperienced, were switched without explanation. … ‘At every hearing there was a new group of judges, and every time we had to start the defence from the beginning’,” the article cited their lawyer, Cihan Aydin, as saying.

“Terrorist charges like the ones used to convict the two women have become commonplace in Turkey, especially since a failed attempt by parts of the military to overthrow President Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. Mass arrests followed.

“Also increasingly common is the practice of switching judges during a trial, more than a dozen lawyers and other legal sources told Reuters. Turkish officials say such changes are merely routine, for health or administrative reasons. Lawyers interviewed by Reuters say they are convinced it’s a way for the government to exert control over the courts.”

According to the report there have been challenges to the rule of Erdoğan, who “has towered over Turkish politics for nearly two decades, first as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014, and since then as president. …

“In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest policies they deemed authoritarian. The trigger was a government plan to build on a small park in downtown Istanbul. Two years later, peace talks broke down between the government and the militant PKK, which for decades had been waging a violent separatist campaign. In July 2016 came the coup attempt.”

‘On each occasion, the authorities responded with a crackdown’

“The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the second-biggest opposition party in Turkey’s parliament, says thousands of its members and supporters have been detained or jailed since the collapse of peace talks between Turkish authorities and the PKK. Among them is the party’s former co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been held since 2016 on terrorism charges that he denies.

“Lawyers defending HDP supporters have also faced prosecution,” the article claimed.

Academics were also targeted on terrorism-related charges according to the report.

“Prosecutions have extended to academics. Around four dozen academics were convicted of spreading terrorist propaganda for signing a petition in 2016 that called for an end to the conflict with Kurdish militants and criticised the Turkish military’s campaign in the Kurdish southeast. They were sentenced to up to three years in jail.

“Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which oversees laws, overturned the verdicts last year, ruling the prosecutions violated academics’ right to freedom of expression. A few days later, responding to criticism of its decision by some politicians and media, the court issued a statement saying the ruling ‘does not mean that the Constitutional Court shares the same opinions or supports these opinions’.”

The report further pointed to the detrimental effect of the coup attempt on the Turkish judiciary.

“Erdogan blamed U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen for orchestrating the failed 2016 coup and set about purging his supporters from public office. Gulen denies any involvement.

“Nearly four years later, more than 91,000 people have been jailed and over 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from their jobs over alleged links to Gulen. Charges include using the services of a bank founded by Gulen’s followers and communicating through an encrypted messaging app that Ankara says was used by Gulen’s network.

“The purge has hollowed out Turkey’s justice system even as the caseload has exploded. By last November, 3,926 judges and prosecutors had been sacked from their posts, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul told parliament. More than 500 are in jail. The expulsions have resulted in a shortage of experienced judges and prosecutors, the president of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals, Ismail Rustu Cirit, told Reuters.

“The purges have added to the workload of Turkey’s judicial system. More than half a million people have been investigated since the coup attempt. As of late 2019, around 30,000 were still awaiting trial as the courts try to process the vast number of coup-related cases. Some suspects have been jailed for months without an indictment or a trial date,” Reuters added.

“New waves of arrests continue, most recently over online criticism of the government’s response to the global coronavirus outbreak. The Interior Ministry said last week that 402 people had been detained for ‘baseless and provocative posts’ about the pandemic.”

The report further argued that judges and prosecutors recruited after coup attempt were inexperienced and lack adequate training. “Figures from Turkey’s Board of Judges and Prosecutors show at least 9,323 new judges and prosecutors have been recruited since the coup attempt. That means that at least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less.

“Hakki Koylu, chairman of the Justice Commission in Turkey’s parliament and a lawmaker for Erdogan’s AK Party, acknowledged to Reuters that some judges and prosecutors ‘have been appointed without adequate training.’

“’Unfortunately, it all happens quite haphazardly,’ Koylu said. ‘We see some of the rulings they make. Now we can only hope that the upper courts correct these rulings’ upon appeal.”

“But the Supreme Court of Appeals, the highest appeals court, has been hollowed out too,” according to the report

“Lawyer Veysel Ok has defended several journalists against accusations [that] they are part of Gulen’s network. He was awarded last year’s international Thomas Dehler Medal, named for the German lawyer who defended Jewish citizens against Nazi persecution, in recognition of his work in defence of freedom of speech and the rule of law. Ok said young judges are being promoted because of their political connections, with little life experience, let alone professional experience,” said Reuters.

“This is, by itself, an injustice,” Ok said. “In the past, we used to research the judges when they were appointed to a case we were representing, and we would adjust our defence according to past rulings they’d handed down and their political views.” Times have changed, he joked darkly. “Now we don’t have to, because we know they are all pro-government.”

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