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CoE cautions Turkey on human rights and judicial failures

Turkey’s right and duty to fight terrorism and criminal organizations must not come at the risk of disregarding human rights and the country needs to take necessary measures to re-establish trust in its judiciary, the Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović has said.

Mijatović who concluded a five-day visit to Turkey also urged the country’s government to “fix the damage on the rule of law which occurred during the two-year state of emergency and in the aftermath,” Ahval news portal reported on Monday.

The 47 member CoE is an international organization whose stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. The organization which is distinct from the 28-nation European Union (EU) cannot make binding laws, but it does have the power to enforce select international agreements reached by European states on various topics.

The best-known body of the CoE is the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which enforces the ECHR.

During her visit to Istanbul and Ankara between July 1 and 5, Mijatović met Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and civil society representatives and lawyers.

The Commissioner’s visit report on Turkey, which is ranked 109 among 126 countries in the 2018-2019 Rule of Law Index is expected soon.

The index is a measure of how the rule of law is perceived by the World Justice Project (WJP), an influential non-profit civil society organization.

“The independence of the Turkish judiciary has been seriously eroded during this period, including through constitutional changes regarding the Council of Judges and Prosecutors which are in clear contradiction with Council of Europe standards and the suspension of ordinary safeguards and procedures for the dismissal, recruitment, and appointment of judges and prosecutors,” said Mijatović.

Consequently, the Turkish judiciary’s already-available tendency to prioritize the protection of the state rather than that of human rights was remarkably strengthened, with the criminal process frequently being reduced only to a formality, notably in terrorism-related cases, according to Mijatović.

“In countless other cases, the judiciary is literally bypassed even for measures seriously affecting individuals’ core human rights, such as certain travel restrictions or the right to practice as a lawyer,” the commissioner said.

Emphasizing Turkey’s right and duty to fight against terrorism and criminal organizations, including an alleged one which attempted a coup on July 15, 2016, Mijatovic said it must not come at the risk of disregarding human rights.

The commissioner argued that the trend in the Turkish judiciary “to further stretch broadly-defined charges on terrorism and membership of a criminal organization has reached unprecedented levels in recent times.”

More than 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial in Turkey since an attempted coup in July 2016. Widespread arrests are still prevalent in a crackdown which critics say demonstrates growing autocracy in the country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government accuse the Gulen group of masterminding the failed coup. The Turkish government regards the Gulen group, led by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States (US) since 1999, as a terrorist organization.

Gulen and his followers, strongly deny the accusations or links to any terror activities.

Because of their alleged links to Gulen’s network, some 150,000 people from the public and private sectors, and military have also been sacked or suspended.

Mijatović said Turkish prosecutors, as well as the courts, see lawful and peaceful acts and statements that are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as proof of criminal activity, sometimes making evidence so inconsistent and arbitrary.

She cited the recent indictment for the Gezi events in that regard, adding that the uncertainty was discouraging legitimate dissent and criticism in the country.

The commissioner defined the new Judicial Reform Strategy, introduced by Erdogan on May 30 as an important step and a sign of goodwill. But she expressed some concerns about it.

“The strategy does not address crucial problems, such as the constitutional framework guaranteeing judicial independence and self-governance, or many shortcomings concerning the principles of a fair trial, equality of arms and legal certainty. Its implementation depends on the authorities’ willingness to completely and very quickly overhaul key legislation, including the Criminal Code, Anti-Terrorism Law, and Code of Criminal Procedure,” she said.

Erdogan’s strategy includes the protection and improvement of the rights and freedoms, improvements of judicial independence, objectivity, and transparency.

The commissioner noted that legitimate activities of independent and rights-based civil society organizations are subjected to continuous pressure from the Turkish authorities.

“It is high time to ease the pressure on human rights defenders in Turkey and enable them to work freely and safely,” Mijatović said.

The commissioner also thanked the Turkish authorities for letting her visit the Silivri Prison, where she met activist Osman Kavala, journalist Ahmet Altan, and lawyer Selcuk Kozaagacli.

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