Seriousness of Turkey’s reform agenda questioned
Intensive debates have taken place in Turkey over the last few weeks on potential economic and judicial reforms. Analysts have commented that the economic indicators are so desperate that even reforms could not easily redress the situation. However, in the field of the judiciary, relatively simple measures could bring a general feeling of relief to society.
It has become common practice in Turkey to place a person in custody for years without giving him a chance to prove his innocence. Selahattin Demirtas, the chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is often mentioned in this regard. Osman Kavala, a well-known philanthropist, is another. But after both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the minister of justice spoke emphatically about judicial reform, expectations have risen for the release of several detainees.
Two prominent politicians, Bulent Arinc and Cemil Cicek, both former speakers of parliament and professional lawyers, joined the choir and made supportive statements regarding judicial reform and the specific cases of Demirtas and Kavala.
Arinc said the indictments of these political detainees were childish and that there was nothing in them that made sense in legal terms. So he stated that their trials could continue without keeping them in custody for years. Otherwise, their cases become a priori punishments of a person without a court hearing, while the presumption of innocence requires that no defendant should be regarded as guilty unless a final verdict is spelled out.
Arinc cited examples from his political past. He was prosecuted several times for his political activities, but was never held in custody while he was on trial. Eventually, the prosecution case against him ended with his acquittal. This meant he did not have to unduly serve a prison sentence for an offense he had not committed.
The same criterion has to be used now, meaning innumerable defendants whose trials are underway should not be treated as being guilty.
Cicek used a similar narrative and extended support to Arinc. He said that the state should admit that many prosecutions are groundless and that it has to spell out repentance, but a genuine one. In other words, it should not say that it is repentant and later continue to make the same mistakes.
Both Arinc and Cicek believe that the first reform to be carried out should be to change the mentality of judges.
The names of Arinc and Cicek are important because they are both members of the Presidential High Advisory Board, which is composed of six former speakers of parliament. Their candid but relevant statements led political analysts to speculate that this might be a staged scenario. They thought the comments made by people within Erdogan’s inner circle must have been used as a trial balloon. They were almost unanimous in believing that Arinc must have consulted Erdogan before making such assessments regarding the release from custody of high-profile political detainees.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul voiced similar views by complaining about malpractice in an area that is his exclusive field of responsibility. These complaints created hope that, this time, the government really means to improve the situation.
But Erdogan surprised everyone. On Nov. 17, he said: “I noticed that strife is being worked out on the basis of my statement regarding our reform agenda. We can never be together with people like Kavala, who is the financier of the Gezi Park demonstrations.”
As a result, Arinc — a very close collaborator with Erdogan — all of a sudden found himself in limbo. He said he felt offended by the president’s statement and resigned his membership of the Presidential High Advisory Board, but not of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
This step suggests that he may be watching for an opportunity to regain prominence in the party, either if Erdogan’s leadership image fades away or when he would be able to gather a group of supporters in the party and directly challenge the president. In fact, when the AKP was established, Arinc was regarded as the No. 3 figure after Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, the former president. Now that Gul is almost excommunicated by Erdogan, Arinc may again nourish hopes of becoming a leading figure in the party.
Both Arinc and Cicek believe that the first reform to be carried out should be to change the mentality of judges who use custody as a de facto punishment. Passing laws is the easiest part. What is more important is the implementation. No reform will fulfill the expectations of the public if the judges do not internalize justice, human rights and universal values.
The path to achieving this goal goes through well-trained judges and the withdrawal of the hand of the politicians from the judiciary. It is too early to tell whether Erdogan will do so.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar