In the recently published World Justice Project 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index, Turkey’s scores continued to decline and the country dropped to the 101st rank among 113 countries. Meanwhile, in the field of checks on government powers, Turkey has ranked as low as the 111th among 113 countries.
How come did Turkey suddenly drift away from modern values and fall to the lowest ranks of the lists that are prepared based on universal values, while the same country until only a few years ago was attaining a significant acceleration in terms of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, and raising its own bar higher and higher?
Indeed, in recent years, Turkey has been going through one of the greatest breaking points of its late history. In only 2005, Turkey was a country facing towards the West and conducting membership negotiations with the European Union.
Until the 2010s, the AKP –the ruling Justice and Development Party, who won the elections in 2002 and started to govern Turkey with promises to establish democracy, universal human rights, and free market economy and was using a rhetoric of dialogue and tolerance declaring that they are going to limit government power and strengthen the rule of law and civil society which prioritise individuals over the state– had taken many steps in this direction.
Day after day, the Turkish public had increased their support to the AKP as they had seen the steps taken on the way to modernisation and EU membership. Taken the wind of this public support to its back, the AKP partially amended the Turkish Constitution in 2010 under the motto “More Democracy, More Freedom!” A majority (58%) of Turkish voters said “Yes” to this amendment by running a campaign under the banner, “It’s Not Enough, But Yes!”
This constitutional amendment, which was interpreted as “a sign showing that Turkey is getting closer to European standards” was also apprised by the European countries.
These amendments to the Constitution that both the Western countries and the Turkish public had expected will bring “more democracy and more freedom” unfortunately caused a “hubris syndrome” in the government, to the contrary of all those expectations. After 2010, first the expansion of freedoms came to a halt, then the country started to go backward in the rule of law, democracy and freedoms.
From 2011 onwards, national and foreign media, civil society organisations and politicians started to express more often that the AKP ruled by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased its oppression on press, freedoms of expression and meeting, and started to firm its grip on subjects like drinking alcohol, abortion, etc.
Indeed, the statement Erdoğan uttered at the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council in Strasbourg “There are some books that they are more destructive than bombs,” was a significant indicator that showed Erdoğan’s perspective toward the freedom of expression.
The year 2013 when Gezi Park Riots broke out in May as small protests against the local government uprooting the trees from the Gezi Park in Taksim, Istanbul, and later transformed into mass civil protests all around Turkey– has been one of the major turning points for Erdoğan and the AKP. Police used severe force against the protesters and 11 people lost their lives during the chaos. In the aftermath of these events, the government started to tighten its grip over the society.
In the same year as the Gezi Park events, which are recorded as one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations of Turkish history, again Turkish history’s biggest operation against corruption and bribery has been conducted on 17 December 2013.
This investigation, which also involved family members of Erdoğan, some ministers and their sons, has made the Turkish judiciary a target for the government. The members of the judiciary who were running the investigation have been intervened and the investigation was interrupted and prevented from being completed.
Under these circumstances at the end of 2013, Turkey managed to rank only 59th among 99 countries in the 2014 Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project. This report stressed that there is a political interference with the judiciary and the freedom of expression has been seriously restricted. Although Turkey having ranked 59th in the Index caused criticism against politicians and governors, it was going to be understood that these were “the good days” compared to those coming later.
In 2014, the government speeded up its interventions and activities it launched after the 17-25 December corruption investigations in order to take all current and any potential investigations and prosecutions under its control.
First, the judges and prosecutors who were running the 17-25 December investigations have been dismissed from the investigation. They were replaced by pro-government judges and prosecutors who issued a decision of non-prosecution for the investigations and closed the case.
In 2014, the government interfered in another judicial investigation –investigation about MİT (Turkish Intelligence) trucks apprehended while carrying weapons to Syria. In January 2014, in Adana and Hatay provinces, the Public Prosecutor, as part of an already initiated investigation, stopped weapon-loaded trucks which were later found belonged to National Intelligence Agency (MİT) which were carrying weapons to two Al-Qaida linked terrorist organisations ISIS and Al-Nusra.
The government fiercely reacted this and dismissed all of the public and chief public prosecutors carrying out the investigation from their judicial positions and replaced them with prosecutors who closed the investigation.
The government not only closed the 17-25 corruption and MİT trucks investigations, but also embarked on making legislative regulations and applying practices that will transform the judiciary into its “party judiciary.”
As part of this scheme, 210,000 police officers were relocated in only 2014. All the police officers who worked for the 17-25 December corruption investigation have been detained.
The government created a platform called Yargıda Birlik Platformu (YBP-Unity in Judiciary Platform) ran for the HSYK (The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors) election held on 13 October 2014. All state facilities have been utilised for this platform and –as a natural outcome– YBP candidates won the elections. Thus, the judiciary has been completely captured by the government and gone under its control.
Before the end of 2014, two of the early actions of the new HSYK had been to elect 144 members to the Court of Appeals, and 33 members to the Council of State, thus providing the government to seize the full of control in the supreme courts of the country, and dismissing the prosecutors of 17-25 December investigations from their judicial positions.
While capturing the control over the judiciary on one hand, the government has continued its discourse and activities, restricting the freedom of expression on the other. The statement, “We will eradicate the Twitter,” uttered by Erdoğan on 20 March 2014, was indicating that the ruling power had no tolerance at all to any kind of opposition. In 2014, with an increase rate of 44% compared to the previous year, access to 23,558 Internet sites had been banned.
The arrest of many people, including General Director of STV Broadcasting Company Hidayet Karaca and Chief Editor of Zaman Newspaper Ekrem Dumanlı, and the following detention of many people including Mr. Karaca on the eve of the first anniversary of the 17 December investigation took place amongst the government’s practices in restricting the freedom of the press and the media.
The government’s interventions on the independence of the judiciary and its restrictions over fundamental rights in 2014 were reflected on the World Justice Project 2015 Rule of Law Index and Turkey sharply dropped to the 82nd rank among 102 countries. Its situation in relation to the fundamental rights was even worse: It fell down to the 96th rank among the 102 countries.
In 2015, the government more intensely continued to apply unlawful restrictions over fundamental rights and freedoms.
Having fully captured the judiciary in 2014, the government continued its operations in 2015 by means of this politicised judiciary. The prosecutors who had conducted the MİT trucks investigation have been detained. Meanwhile, an arrest warrant was issued against the prosecutors who had conducted the 17 December corruption investigation.
In the general elections held in June under the threat of Erdoğan asserting “Give us 400 parliament members and let this issue be settled peacefully,” the ruling party lost its majority for the first time in its 13 years of rule in the Turkish Parliament. This made the government even more furious.
The ruling power intensified its discourse and actions of violence against the Kurds and severely violated fundamental rights and freedoms. After this period of violence, they re-held the elections. This “strategy of violence” had intimidated the society and the ruling party once again captured the majority of the seats in the parliament.
With the fury of losing the elections held in June, the government raided the television channels and newspapers of Koza-Ipek Group with a massive police force, which was known with its opposition to the government and shut all the facilities down.
Well-known journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, who had published and aired the visuals of the MİT trucks investigations, were detained on 26 November 2015 soon after Erdoğan’s threat saying “I will not leave him on his devices, he will pay the price very heavily!”
World Justice Project 2016 Rule of Law Index took the 2015 photograph of Turkey which was now very much deteriorated and seriously deviated from the axis of the rule of law. According to the index, Turkey ranked as low as 99th among 113 countries under the rule of law, while it ranked 105th under the fundamental rights.
Years 2016 & 2017
When its practices in 2013, 2014 and 2015 are examined, it can clearly be seen that the current Turkish Government was deliberately trying to carry Turkey day by day to a much more authoritarian point far from freedoms. Even just by looking at the data gathered in those years, it could easily be predicted that the government was going to increase its authority and oppression in 2016.
However, much worse happened and the events that nobody could even imagine unfolded in 2016. Everything has toppled upside down in Turkey after the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, which was titled as “the controlled coup” by opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu; named by journalist Ahmet Altan as “the mysterious coup” that granted Erdoğan “the absolute sovereignty”; while described as “God’s Blessing” by Erdoğan himself during the very hours of the coup attempt.
The allegations put forward that Erdoğan has previously planned the coup in order to establish an absolute authority over the country, or he was previously informed about the preparations for a coup and planned to turn this into an opportunity for his absolute power and implemented his plan successfully, can be examined in another article.
We must stress here that, no matter who the plotters or committers were at the background or the foreground of this coup, one thing is certain that after 15 July 2016 in Turkey, a new regime whereby the law is put aside, has been established by the government lead by Erdoğan. In this new regime, Erdoğan is the “One Man” to whom both the legislature and the judiciary have been made subservient.
With the State of Emergency declared on 20 July 2016, the Cabinet of Ministers have been granted the authority to issue emergency decrees, and thus an era of governmental decrees has started in Turkey. The governmental decrees, which, according to the Constitution, can only be issued during a state of emergency and limited only to the exigencies of the emergency, have been used as a rough “opponent elimination device” and started to be arbitrarily issued for nearly any kind of matter.
In the meantime, the governmental decrees that are supposed to be inspected by the Constitutional Court in accordance with the Constitution, have been left completely outside of the judicial supervision with the Constitutional Court’s decree, which openly denies the reason of its own existence by stating that “The Constitutional Court has no authority to inspect the government emergency decrees.”
Since July 2016, Turkey has been governed with the emergency decrees which are kept away from any judicial or legislative scrutiny. With these decrees issued until now, 116,250 public officials have been dismissed from their jobs, 1064 private educational institutions (kindergartens, primary, secondary and high schools), 360 private preparatory courses and supplementary study centres, 847 student dormitories, 48 private hospitals and health centres, 15 private foundation universities, 29 unions that were operating under 2 confederations, 1424 associations, 145 foundations, 175 media and broadcasting companies have been closed down. Meanwhile, 1022 business firms have been transferred to the Saving Deposit Insurance Fund.
On the morning of 16 July 2016, the government, who had already been reigning over the judicial decision making mechanisms since 2014, made an attempt that will turn the judiciary to an organisation that carries out the ruling party’s field services: the government directed judiciary issued arrest warrants for 2745 judges and prosecutors.
The arrest warrants issued even before the identities of the putschist military officers were determined are a clear evidence that shows the government had already been preparing for the coup night and for the elimination process they were going to carry out in the judiciary.
This number of dismissed members of the judiciary has arisen to 5,000 (almost one third of the whole judiciary!) in this period. Considering that the number of votes that did not go to the pro-government YBP candidates during the 2014 judicial election was around 5,000, one can easily deduce how the arrest lists had been prepared.
With the arrests of thousands of judges and prosecutors on the morning of 16 July, the government has become an organ that can carry out all kinds of unlawful operations by means of the judiciary. After 15 July 2016, legal proceedings have been launched against 169,000 people and nearly 71,000 people have been arrested. 50,000 of these people have been detained and judicial control has been applied on 47,000 people. Meanwhile, passports of hundreds of thousands of people have been cancelled.
Among victims of Erdogan’s judiciary, there are nearly 300 journalists of whom 160 are still in jail. Also philanthropists like Osman Kavala, human rights defenders like Amnesty’s Turkey Chair Taner Kilic and pro-Kurdish politicians including HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas are still kept unlawfully in prison.
As a natural consequence of these practices of the government, Turkey’s place in the World Justice Project 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index has dropped even further down and ranked 101st among 113 countries. It ranked 107th under the category of fundamental rights.
Within the category of constraints on government power, the new regime led by President Erdoğan, which is immune from all judicial and legislative reviews, has taken its place at the 111th rank – third from the last – among the 113 countries.
As it can be clearly seen from the data revealed by the WJP Rule of Law Index, Turkey is forging ahead through a very dark path that is stripped from fundamental rights and freedoms, rule of law and universal values. One does not need to be a clairvoyant to guess that Turkey, at this rate, will end up with at the last rank of this index in the forthcoming years.
Just as journalist Ahmet Altan, who has been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment on 16 February 2018 with the indictment of attempting a coup just because of his writings says, “The smell of this rotting corpse that encapsulated Turkey today is actually the smell of the dying judiciary which has spread to all of the society and it terrifies everyone.
There is a judiciary and a media in Turkey anymore that see justice as “punishing the other”. “The other” is us, all opponents of the AKP. Together with all the institutions of the state, judiciary, too, has been shot and put into a comatose state. This chaos could not be created without shooting the judiciary.”
While the following words of Honorary Head of the Court of Cassation Prof Sami Selçuk are another summary of the grievous picture drawn by the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index: “For fifty years, we have never gone through a period of time when the judiciary has been clawed and intervened this much.
It is such a pity, so heart-breaking. As a former judge, these days are the days of mourning and embarrassment for me. I never, ever, remember that I felt this much ashamed on behalf of my country, on behalf of the law faculties in my country, on behalf of all the lawyers and law students.”**
*Dr. Ugur Tok is director of the Platform for Peace & Justice.