ANKARA: Enis Berberoglu, a deputy in Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), officially regained his position as an MP on Thursday after an Istanbul court halted criminal complaints against him. Berberoglu had been convicted of disclosing confidential state documents related to Syria.
The Istanbul 14th High Criminal Court dropped charges against Berberoglu on Monday following a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court which decided unanimously on Jan. 21 that Berberoglu’s rights to stand for elections and engage in political activities had been violated by lower courts because legal proceedings against him should have been suspended due to his re-election as a member of parliament during the country’s June 2018 elections.
Berberoglu, a former journalist, was sentenced by a lower court to five years and 10 months in jail in 2017 for his role in leaking confidential documents about National Intelligence Organization trucks allegedly carrying weapons bound for Syria. He was found guilty of espionage and providing footage of the trucks to a dissident journalist.
Although he was re-elected to parliament in June 2018, he was not released from jail until September that year, when the Court of Cassation postponed his sentence due to his re-election. In June 2020, the Turkish parliament stripped parliamentary immunity from Berberoglu for the parliamentary term 2015-2018, and he was placed under house arrest to serve the rest of his initial sentence. But rights activists and lawyers consistently repeated that his re-election in 2018 meant his parliamentary immunity still applied, a claim that has now been upheld by Turkey’s highest court.
“While the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Enis Berberoglu and his subsequent return to parliament are positive first steps, they should be the rule, not the exception,” Gina S. Lentine, senior program officer for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, told Arab News.
Freedom House emphasizes that this same precedent should be applied to other politicians who have been jailed for their roles in the opposition, including Leyla Guven and Selahattin Demirtas, former lawmakers from the HDP.
Last year, Guven, a prominent Kurdish opposition figure, was sentenced to 22 years in prison over terror charges, and her parliamentary immunity was removed in June 2020. Demirtas, the former co-chair of the HDP, is also serving jail time.
“Since the 2016 failed coup attempt, the Turkish government has targeted the political opposition, all but destroying political pluralism and severely undermining the fundamental right to free association. Freedom of association is one of the most important elements of a healthy, functioning democracy,” Lentine said.
“On paper, Turkey frequently says it will adopt reforms, but on the ground, the government continues to up the ante on curtailing fundamental freedoms. We see this with the law enforcement’s response to students and professors exercising their right to free, peaceful assembly in response to the controversial appointment of Melih Bulu (as rector of Bogazici University) by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” she continued.
“The same applies to the recent passage of the Law on Terrorism Financing that threatens to restrict NGOs’ freedom of association, and the Turkish government’s refusal to address the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments on Demirtas and (jailed philanthropist Osman) Kavala,” she added.
With a constitutional change in May 2016, the Turkish parliament removed immunity from 154 deputies.
“The arrest and the removal of parliamentary immunity from several parliamentarians, including Berberoglu, has been the direct result of this change,” Tevfik Sonmez Kucuk, a constitutional law professor from Yeditepe University in Istanbul, told Arab News.
“According to article 83 of the constitution, his parliamentary immunity was renewed with his re-election as a parliamentarian, but he was arrested despite this apparent legal provision,” he added.
Kucuk also warned that Berberoglu’s parliamentary immunity could be removed again because another summary of proceedings against him, with more serious allegations, has already been submitted to parliament.
“Therefore, one should remain cautious about considering this ruling as a precedent,” he said.
Berberoglu is expected to take part in Tuesday’s parliamentary session.