Erdogan, Justice and the Rule of Law

January 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

January 10, 2012; Financial Times

Since coming to power in 2002 Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has led his country some way down the road to becoming a more open and liberal democracy. But a report on Turkey’s judicial system published by the Council of Europe this week highlights the increasingly halting nature of this advance.

The report cites “longstanding, systemic shortcomings in the administration of justice in Turkey (that) adversely affect the enjoyment of human rights”. These include lengthy proceedings and detentions, sometimes up to 10 years; the use of secret witnesses; arrests of scores of journalists; and uncertainty about the judiciary’s independence from the executive.

The report recognises the steps Mr Erdogan has taken to give greater respect to human rights. He has also reined in the military, which on four occasions since 1960 has ousted a democratically elected government – often brutally – in the name of upholding Turkey’s secular tradition.

However, as Turkey’s appetite for EU membership fades, there have been disturbing signs of a growing authoritarianism. The nets cast by those officials investigating attempts to destabilise the mildly Islamist government appear to be widening to encompass those who legitimately oppose it.

This week the Turkish prosecutor launched an inquiry into the main opposition leader for critical comments he made after visiting a prison holding political opponents. Almost 100 journalists are being held in prison, while complaints to the European Court of Human Rights have exploded since 2009. According to the Council report, the judicial system appears to have blurred the “frontier between terrorist acts and the rights to freedom of thought, expression, association and assembly”.

The government denies that it is seeking to muffle critics by abusing a nominally apolitical legal system. But to put fears to rest, Mr Erdogan must deliver on his long-awaited promise to revise the constitution, an authoritarian relic that validates the judiciary’s inclination to prioritise the interests of the state over human rights. A new constitution is urgently needed to enshrine not only freedom of expression and other civil liberties but the fundamental rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Mr Erdogan has gone further than any other Turkish leader by apologising for the killing of 13,000 Kurds by the military in the 1930s. Yet so far he remains unapologetic about the killing just two weeks ago of 35 Kurdish civilians who were mistaken for militants in a bombing raid. Such contradictions must be dealt with. This is even more important as Turkey’s regional influence has grown after the Arab spring. Its government is now touted as a role model for fledgling Arab democracies.

Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party may feel confident after his third election win last year. With a mix of reform and pro-business economic policies, the prime minister has delivered strong economic growth, although there are signs this is now faltering. His foreign policy has extended the country’s international influence and Turkey is a key interlocutor in sensitive countries such as Iran and Syria.

This may be why Ankara’s western allies have been muted in their criticism of recent developments. Yet silence serves no one’s interests. The AK party may still be the preferred choice against a dysfunctional secular opposition, but the economic boom is fizzling while the Syrian crisis has shown the limits of Turkish influence.

A stagnating economy combined with rising authoritarianism is a recipe for tension. To avoid it, Ankara should continue down the path on which Mr Erdogan set out in 2002. Due process of law and political freedom are non-negotiable in a true liberal democracy.

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