Judicial impartiality on Trial

News media reported that Turkish prosecutors have dismissed charges in a major corruption case that has shaken Turkey. Meanwhile the prosecutors who initiated the corruption probe are themselves now subject to an investigation.  Today’s events raise basic questions about what remains of judicial impartiality in Turkey.

logomuzAs reported by Reuters,

Turkish prosecutors dismissed a case against 60 suspects, among them a former minister’s son and a construction tycoon, in the graft scandal swirling around Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle, media said on Friday.

The case, concerning the alleged award of illegal permits in building projects, was the less important of two dossiers in the scandal, which broke into the open on December 17 when three ministers’ sons and businessmen were detained in police raids.

To add spice to the story, on the same day, Bloomsberg reports that:

The country’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors… started a probe against prosecutors Zekeriya Oz, Celal Kara and Muammer Akkas, who were initially in charge of the graft case, as well as judge Suleyman Karacol, who had ordered a freeze on assets of the suspects.

For many, the case reinforces a sense that judicial independence, always weak in Turkey, is being erased as the government extends its control.

In an e-mail to Bloomberg, Wolfgang Piccolo, a political and economic risk analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London, writes that “The government is succeeding in its efforts to neutralize the damaging corruption investigation.  The AKP will now focus more and more on those it believes were behind the probes.”

The corruption case has long been seen as an important test case for the judiciary’s independence and impartiality – issues that go to the heart of the rule of law.  Whatever the merits of the cases, this sudden turn of events raises important questions about the politicization of the judiciary in Turkey.

Andrew Gardner

Andrew Gardner

Amnesty has been particularly concerned about reforms that have been made to the HSYK, or Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.  Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s Researcher on Turkey, notes that “a system where the ministry of justice has considerable power over the top body within the judiciary”  will not “allow for an independent and impartial judiciary.”

This politicization of the judiciary, Gardner warns, carries with it far-reaching risks:

Gardner also argued that the HSYK bill represents “a much more long-term problem” of the Turkish judiciary. He said the judiciary has been used to prosecute the expression of peaceful ideas “unfairly,” and yet it remains ineffective against alleged wrongdoing, “be it allegations of corruption or human rights abuses” by public officials. “Unfortunately, it seems with these recent changes [to the HSYK], it is going to be even less effective in bringing these abuses by public official to account,” he added, stating what he called AI’s assessment that the changes to the HSYK “very clearly” damage the independence of the judiciary.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University

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