By Abdullah Bozkurt
June 01, 2015
From evading massive corruption charges to illegal arms shipments to terrorist groups in foreign countries; from unlawfully seizing and confiscating business assets and properties to a harsh crackdown on independent and critical media -- the prevailing impunity reins in Turkey, which is ruled by overzealous political Islamists who have weakened democracy and suspended the rule of law.
What is bizarre in the case of Turkey is that all these crimes are being committed by complicit state actors and with the involvement of government officials who are supposed to address the pervasive problem of impunity in the first place. Ironically, those who are supposed to guard the nation against the cultivation of a culture of impunity are the ones who endorse it. The utter disregard for the rule of law, fundamental rights and democratic checks and balances under corrupt Islamists has fuelled hatred, racism, discrimination and all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism and an anti-American fever in Turkey, while the ideology associated with the Islamists has driven each and every policy decision and action.
Since the impunity is arranged in the upper echelons of the government, impunity is also pervasive in the middle and lower ranks among authorities, damaging the deterrence of human rights violations. Once the rule of law is finally restored in Turkey, not only will political Islamist rulers be held accountable for what they have done, so will those who followed the illegal orders of their superiors. Just as the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials that were held post-World War II did not excuse those who complied with the illegal orders of their superiors, those who committed serious human rights violations in the last couple of years in Turkey will have to respond to charges. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is also clear on the liability of perpetrators, from senior ranks to the middle and lower ranks.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his caretaker Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Cabinet members are effectively running a criminal enterprise with impunity and exercise powers that they do not have under the Constitution and as such they are all liable for the rights violations in this country. These autocrats have not only abused the criminal justice system to jail government critics and opponents but have also cracked down on civil society, media and business groups by abusing the administrative powers of the executive branch.
The jailing of the anti-corruption investigators who exposed the involvement of Erdoğan and his associates in corruption and the detention of military officers, police chiefs and prosecutors who intercepted Syria-bound arms-filled trucks that were destined for terrorist groups in a foreign country are examples of the government abusing the criminal justice system. The record number of criminal cases consisting of defamation lawsuits and state secrecy and espionage charges launched against independent journalists is also another example of how the government manipulates the justice system and controls the judicial processes.
The prime example of the blatant abuse of administrative powers is the illegal seizure of Bank Asya, the largest Islamic lender and the healthiest one in terms of liquidity ratios. Since some of the major shareholders of the bank are not supportive of the government, the political Islamist rulers have -- acting with predatory motives -- abused the regulatory bodies to confiscate their properties and thereby abused the administrative processes for political ends. Since the government controls the judiciary, the shareholders have little chance of obtaining legal remedies in the Turkish justice system. Therefore, they are contemplating taking the case to European and international judicial and arbitration organs.
The staff members of media groups that are openly targeted by Erdoğan and other government officials are placed at huge risk. The hateful narrative against the critical media has fuelled impunity in the police force, which is under the control of the Islamists. The police brutality and physical violence against Zaman reporter Emre Şencan on Sunday at Taksim Square while he was trying to cover the anniversary of the Gezi Park events is the result of this impunity endorsed by the government. The threats are not only limited to the national media but also extend to correspondents working for the foreign press such as The New York Times and The Economist.
The most troubling sign in the impunity is the violence and intimidation against human rights defenders by government authorities. Since they are the last line of defence against human rights violations, who will advocate for victims' rights if rights defenders themselves are in the line of fire? Turkey has witnessed numerous cases in the last two years where lawyers have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, physical violence and intimidation. Attorneys' offices have been put under constant surveillance by the police and they have even been prevented from accessing courtrooms while trying to defend their clients. Liberal judges have been arrested for the first time in Turkish republican history because of their decision to release a journalist and anti-corruption investigators.
Two notorious cases best illustrate how the impunity is being perpetuated under the political Islamist rulers in Turkey. In a conversation that was leaked in March 2013, then-Interior Minister Efkan Ala was heard instructing Istanbul’s then-Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu to immediately detain the country's top notch investigative journalist, Mehmet Baransu, for publishing confidential documents that exposed a massive and illegal profiling of unsuspecting citizens by the government. "Detain him immediately,” he ordered the governor. “There is no need for a warrant from a court; just break down the door and take that man [Baransu]. We can draft a new law and make sure what you do isn't a crime. If the prosecutor [we ask to do this] objects, then take the prosecutor, too,” Ala was heard saying. Ala was working under direct orders from Erdoğan.
Another incident happened in January 2014 when Erdoğan instructed Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş to allow three trucks en route to Syria -- which gendarmes had intercepted on suspicion of arms shipments to terrorist groups in Syria -- to drive away. Aziz Takçı, the prosecutor who ordered the search of the trucks heading to Syria -- which were being operated by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) -- stated during his testimony in May that after the operation targeting the trucks became known, Erdoğan called Governor Coş and gave him instructions, saying: “These trucks belong to MİT. We have issued orders to MİT concerning this. We will enact a law to cover this problem. Allow these trucks to drive away.” Takçı is now behind bars on trumped up charges of espionage after the government instituted a sham probe to hush him up.
This has become a pattern under the Islamists, who break the law and then try to cover their tracks by pushing new legislation through a rubberstamping Parliament. This represents a new level of impunity that is rarely seen in democratic regimes. Both the legislative and judicial branches have been taken hostage by an authoritarian regime that is determined to persecute critics and opponents. The bona fide pursuit of criminal justice is not relevant and there is no chance of justice being done and served. The Islamists have a vested interest in laying the blame on others so that they will keep escaping from accountability.
Erdoğan's excessive pressure on Turks and Kurds has helped generate more support among people for the resumption of law and order, even among some that supported the government before. In fact, he has inadvertently unified the opposition under democratic demands, including Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, who used to define themselves in opposition to each other. This has resulted in the public's loss of confidence in Erdoğan and has shred the very fabric that weaves citizens together as a nation that trusts its government. The terrible rights violations have also led to a growing outcry in the public opinion of Turkey's allies, which has catapulted their governments to take a stand against Erdoğan and his brutal regime. As Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield informed the US Congress recently, the US is considering establishing a strategic review with Turkey in which rights, the rule of law and press freedom will be covered extensively. This is a first in US-Turkish ties.
Perhaps the US action is a harbinger of a wide-scale dialogue the international community will soon impose on Turkey, should the correction not be made in the post-election period. The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' (OHCHR) Universal Periodic Review of Turkey in January made it very clear that the rights violations had been duly noted, with many allies and partners raising wrongdoings in Turkey in unusually strong language. Turkey's international obligations to fight against impunity in cases of rights violations were recorded in the largest intergovernmental organization. This shows how the country's image has deteriorated and its track record has been tarnished under Islamists. If not taking a hint from these critical approaches, it is likely that targeted sanctions against right abusers will follow to deter the culture of impunity that is taking a terrible toll on Turkish democracy and hurting the nation's credibility as a dependable ally in Europe and North America.
Significant judicial reform and strengthening the independence of judges and prosecutors are keys to end the cycle of crimes and impunity in Turkey. But before that, one needs to have a democratic executive that is willing to enforce court judgments that are not to its liking and that is determined to stay away from exerting political interference in the work of the judiciary.