(Istanbul) - President Abdullah Gul should veto a law that would curb the independence of the body that administers and regulates Turkey’s judiciary.
On February 15, 2014, Turkey’s parliament passed comprehensive amendments to the existing law on the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (Hakimler ve Savcılar Yüksek Kurulu, HSYK). The new law gives the justice minister, who already heads the council, more direct control over the body and a stronger role in its decision making. The changes will increase the likelihood of judges and prosecutors being disciplined or reassigned at the behest of the government.
“Turkey’s new judiciary law means just one thing and that is greater government control over the judiciary,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “For the sake of the rule of law in Turkey, President Gul should veto the new law.”
One of the most important signals of stronger government control in the law relates to the council’s own inspection board, which regulates the conduct of council members. Under the new law, the board’s chairman and deputy chairman would be ministerial appointments, with the chairman reporting directly to the justice minister.
The new law also gives the justice minister the power to authorize the investigation of council members for misconduct and disciplinary matters, raising clear concerns about the possibility of politically motivated decisions and a form of entrenched government pressure on the council. Subsequent decisions to prosecute a council member would be made by the council’s general assembly. But the justice minister’s overwhelming control over the inspection board and power to authorize or prevent investigations will exert strong influence over all subsequent decisions and over the general functioning of the whole council.
Overall, the version of the law adopted on February 15 slightly revises earlier drafts, which gave the minister an even stronger role.
“The minister’s – and thus the government’s – control over the inspection board is the most alarming part of the new law on the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors,” Sinclair-Webb said. “This is a major tool for a government to control the High Council, and ultimately the judiciary.”
The Justice and Development Party government decided to put proposed amendments to a parliamentary vote despite strong concern expressed by the European Union’s Commissioner for Enlargement about the earlier draft proposals.
Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, said on February 17 that the amendments adopted by parliament “represent a regression of judicial independence.” The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) contends that the new law is unconstitutional and has taken the exceptional step of applying for the Constitutional Court to cancel the law in advance of the president’s approval or veto.
The government’s move to control the board comes after revelations in December 2013 of serious corruption and bribery allegations involving government ministers’ sons and the head of a bank. A week later four ministers resigned, and prosecutors opened a new investigation that included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son.
The government has removed prosecutors leading both investigations, however. And thousands of police officers and scores of prosecutors have been demoted and rotated over the past two months. The government has dismissed the corruption allegations as part of an “international conspiracy,” involving the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers inside the judiciary and police, to overthrow the prime minister.