Ruling Party Narrowly Escapes Court Ban
July 31, 2008
The court came perilously close to shutting down Turkey’s democratically elected government. The case should be a wake-up call to the government to resume the constitutional and human rights reform Turkey so desperately needs.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch

The case seeking to ban Turkey’s ruling party underscores the urgent need for the government to reform the constitution and improve respect for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 30, 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court rejected, by one vote, a call from the country’s chief prosecutor to close down the ruling Justice and Development Party and to impose a five-year ban from political life on President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, and 69 other party members. The party was accused of having engaged in anti-secular activities, supposedly evidence of a longer-term intention to set up an Islamic state. The court did appear to agree with the prosecutor’s arguments in part, ruling that the party be sanctioned through a cut in its Treasury funding.

“The court came perilously close to shutting down Turkey’s democratically elected government,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case should be a wake-up call to the government to resume the constitutional and human rights reform Turkey so desperately needs.”

The bulk of the evidence presented in the case aimed at proving the party’s intent to set up an Islamic state was made up of excerpts from nonviolent speeches by party leaders and deputies, and a move by the parliament to pass constitutional amendments lifting the restriction on the wearing of the headscarf by women in universities.

Many of Turkey’s laws contain restrictions on free speech and association, which have their basis in the existing constitution, drawn up in 1982 by the then-military regime. On re-election in July 2007, the government pledged to rewrite the 1982 constitution, but after months of discussion it has failed to make public a draft constitution.

“The government should now see the value of ensuring freedom of speech and association in Turkey,” said Sinclair-Webb. “But ensuring people in Turkey actually secure these rights will only come through a new constitution. Tinkering with laws won’t fix the problem.”

Human rights defenders and lawyers in Turkey have long called for a complete redrafting of the constitution on the grounds that the existing constitution poses fundamental restrictions on basic rights and freedoms. The constitution limits free speech, restricts minority rights and entrenches the power of the Turkish military in political life. The drafting of a new constitution would also open the way to reform of laws such as the Law on Political Parties, which fundamentally restricts the right to association and was also used against the government in the closure case.

Background

The Constitutional Court’s decision not to close down the Justice and Development Party came after the 11 members of the court deliberated for three days in closed session beginning on July 28. In the late afternoon of July 30, President of the Court Haþim Kýlýç announced that six members of the court had voted for closure of the party, short of the seven required, four members had voted for a cut in state Treasury funding, and one member had voted to reject the case. The court ruled that half the party’s Treasury funding for 2008 be cut.

The indictment against the ruling party was issued on March 14, just over a month after the Justice and Development Party-controlled parliament had adopted constitutional amendments aimed at lifting the longstanding ban on women wearing the Islamic headscarf on university campuses. The headscarf is seen by secularists in Turkey as a political and religious symbol that threatens the secular nature of the state. The parliament’s amendments to the constitution were cancelled by the Constitutional Court on June 5.

The government’s move to lift the headscarf ban was a key impetus for Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçýnkaya of the Court of Cassation to try to close down the government party, though the bulk of the evidence he cited consisted of nonviolent speeches and statements by party leaders and officials.

Since its establishment in 1962, the Constitutional Court has banned 24 political parties in Turkey. A number have been closed on the grounds of violating the principle of secularism, others for religious fundamentalism, some for emphasizing Kurdish ethnic identity – which the court stated posed a threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic – and others allegedly for their communist ideological agenda.

The European Court of Human Rights has heard nine cases against Turkey concerning political party bans by Turkey’s Constitutional Court. In all but one case, the European Court has ruled against the decision to ban, finding Turkey in violation of articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention (freedom of expression and freedom of association), largely on the basis that none of the reasons given by the Turkish courts justified the banning of a political party.

The one case where the European Court of Human Rights found no violation concerned the closure of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), a former ruling party also accused of trying to set up an Islamic state. The judgment of the European Court in this case has been widely criticized for being inconsistent with its previous rulings on the closure of political parties, and failing to examine the lack of evidence that the Welfare Party was planning to overthrow democracy.

Later this year the Constitutional Court is to deliberate on a case against another political party, the Democratic Society Party. The prosecutor seeks the closure of the party, arguing that its activities and speeches by party officials constitute separatism. As with the Justice and Development Party, the evidence in the indictment against the Democratic Society Party consists predominantly of nonviolent speeches and statements by party officials and deputies.

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