As Turkey’s Council of State marked its 149th anniversary of its foundation this week, its president delivered a speech that left jaws among members of judiciary wide open, capturing the picture of how Turkey’s top courts, high justice toed the line with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.
“The notion of separation of powers have become more clear with the April 16 referendum,” said Council of State President Zerrin Gungor. Her remarks represented a complete break with the majority of legal experts and government critics in Turkey over what the referendum meant for the rule of law and separation of powers.
The constitutional amendment, which was approved by a razor-thin win after a controversial voting process, bestowed sweeping powers on the presidential office, removing safeguards and essential checks on the executive power to be exercised by one man.
Also, her comments on the state of emergency measures were feted on both sides of the political aisle as ill-judged and misplaced. In contrary to the widely-held opinion by the international community and Mr. Erdogan’s critics, Ms. Gungor defended anti-democratic measures as essential to clear the state of “terrorists.”
“The aim of the state of emergency and adopted decrees during this process has been to clear the state institutions of members of terrorist organizations, to protect democracy… except for this goal; there have been no restrictions on the rights and freedoms of individuals,” she said.
Her speech in the presence of President Erdogan contained startling elements from a senior representative of the law.
Regardless of political affiliation and social conviction, most people think that Turkey’s mind-boggling purge took on a destructive edge with far-reaching social ramifications. Nearly 150,000 public officials have been summarily discharged from their posts without any investigation or due process. There was no established record or criminal charge leveled against any of them.
In a rare moment of public acknowledgment on TV this year, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag admitted that the purged public servants had been fired by administrative decisions, not by legal proceedings or investigations. The government has overly exploited emergency measures and decrees to circumvent usual legal procedures to advance its political agenda.
None of the dismissed officials are able to seek legal remedy at the domestic domain, they are devoid of legal measures to restore their rights back. After facing international criticism, the Turkish government pledged in January to form an emergency commission to deal with complaints from purged officials to review whether they were mistakenly targeted. But despite that vow, no action followed for setup of the Commission in the intervening months, an uncertainty that has left people in a permanent state of limbo, without any alternative option to pursue their rights.
The emergency measures also saw 50,000 people jailed, 150,000 detained and more than 1,000 companies confiscated. More than 1,500 civil society organizations have been shut down, including 151 media outlets.
Ms. Gungor’s defense of both purge and the state of emergency practices is beyond anybody’s grasp, sparking sharp criticism from leftist, independent and critical media.
In a country where more than 4,000 prosecutors and judges, including two members of Constitutional Court, have been sacked, and more than 3,000 of them placed behind bars, Ms. Gungor’s seemingly unrepentant defense of such practices elicited immediate rebuke from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The CHP said the judge disrobed herself and entered politics with her latest comments. The head of the Council of State has landed herself in public scrutiny and media spotlight over the past two years after her cordial rapport with President Erdogan.
Claims of nepotism after her daughter got a post in President Erdogan’s palace have swirled in the media, casting doubt about Ms. Gungor’s impartiality.
Since the highly controversial referendum associated with allegations of voter fraud and political intervention, Mr. Erdogan has unleashed a whirlwind, ramping up the crackdown on opponents with redoubled gusto.
The judiciary has also come under heavy political fire as Mr. Erdogan showed no signs of changing his modus operandi, clamping down on anyone he deems non-loyalist among judiciary and bureaucracy. But there is more to the ongoing political proxy battle than meets the eye.
Rather than only hammering judiciary, Mr. Erdogan is also now shaping it. CHP lawmaker Baris Yarkadas who acclimated to a new role of self-employed sleuth began to solve tangled connections behind the Justice Ministry’s recent hiring of new judges.
He well documented that 800 of 900 new judges have direct links to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). His revelations ignited a political firestorm in the media. The Justice Ministry has denied Mr. Yarkadas’ claims but declined to offer elaboration over the findings linking the above-mentioned judges to the party.
Mr. Yarkadas googled every single name of the newly elected judges and found out that 800 of them served in the ruling AKP in different positions. They were party officials right before being appointed as judges after a shabby recruitment process driven by claims of nepotism and favoritism in disregard of long-established procedures to ensure impartiality and merit-based election system.
During her speech, Council of State President Gungor also offered a veiled criticism of the main opposition CHP whose appeal to the Council of State for the annulment of referendum vote had been rejected. Ms. Gungor rejected charges of politicization of her institution, and political allegiance to the government. She urged respect for the Council of State decisions which, she claimed, based on scientific measures and analytical review.
But Ms. Gungor’s recent remarks portraying the controversial state of emergency practices in benevolent terms similar to the government’s discourse fuels legitimate doubts about herself and the Council of State.
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