Turkish Constitutional Court’s new mission is to ignore and legitimize unlawful acts, says jailed former deputy chief justice

Alparslan Altan shaking hands with then-President Abdullah Gül.

Former deputy chief justice of Turkey’s Constitutional Court Alparslan Altan said in the aftermath of a coup attempt in 2016 the Turkish Constitutional Court has changed its mission from protecting fundamental rights and freedoms and ensuring the rule of law to “shutting its eyes to unlawful actions and trying to legitimize them,” in an open letter shared by his wife Necla Altan on her Twitter account on Thursday.

In his letter titled “Can you hear me? I can’t breathe!” Altan talked about his unlawful imprisonment in contravention of Turkish law and a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling as well as the current state of legal affairs in Turkey.

Altan was detained on July 16, 2016, a day after the coup attempt, and was arrested by an Ankara court four days later. As a Constitutional Court justice, Altan could only be arrested in the event he was caught in flagrante delicto (in the very act of wrongdoing) and even in that case, the criminal prosecution and the trial had to be carried out by the Supreme State Council. Yet, he was tried and sentenced to 11 years, three months on charges of membership in a terrorist organization by the 9th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals.

He was accused of membership in the Gülen movement, a religious group inspired by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding the abortive putsch on July 15, 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity. Following the allegations, Gülen called on the Turkish government to allow for an international investigation.

As part of a crackdown on alleged members of the Gülen movement, on July 16, 2016, early in the morning of the coup attempt, Turkey’s Council of Judges and Prosecutors suspended 2,735 judges and prosecutors. They were later summarily fired from their jobs with emergency decrees, and many of them were eventually put behind bars. The rapid publication of the lists containing thousands of names prompted allegations that the government had already prepared the lists of those to be fired before the coup.

On April 19, 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey violated the rights to liberty and security of Alparslan Altan. According to the ECtHR, the court that jailed Altan failed to provide “reasonable suspicion” for pretrial detention and the evidence that the court claimed to be sufficient to keep Altan in jail had been gathered after his initial detention. In its ruling the ECtHR ordered the Turkish government to pay 10,000 euros to Altan in non-pecuniary damages. Yet, despite ECtHR’s decision, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals did not release him.

According to Altan, Turkey is going through a legal crisis of huge proportions whereby the judiciary is used as a means of oppression and intimidation. “What is worse,” he says, “is that no one speaks out about this persecution and injustice; instead [people] look away, keep silent or even support it. In these times everyone is responsible not only for what they do or say but also for what they do not say.”

Altan says he knows the Supreme Court of Appeals will deny his appeal. He also has no doubt he will eventually be given additional rights violation rulings but also knows that the process, which includes the Turkish Constitutional Court and the ECtHR, will probably end after he will have served his sentence. “The miniscule amount of compensation that will be awarded me with rights violation rulings will not bring back the years that I have lost and spent in prison,” he says.

Altan is currently in a jail cell that normally hosts inmates who are given multiple life sentences or those inmates who are subjected to disciplinary segregation. He says his unlawful imprisonment for over four years has not only been a punishment for himself, but also for his almost fully disabled child who requires care.

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