When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan goes to Brussels on Tuesday for the first time in five years, top of the agenda for the European Union will be his latest efforts to control the judiciary and appoint government-friendly prosecutors ready to limit or bury corruption allegations.
Proposals over the past week by the Prime Minister’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to increase executive control over judicial institutions and appointments would be a backward step for the rule of law in Turkey, and undermine a core pillar of human rights and democracy – separation of powers and independence of the judiciary. The government wants changes to the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors – the body responsible for judicial appointments and disciplinary measures - and tabled a proposal last week that would tie the board closely to the Ministry of Justice and thus the executive.
Attempts to reach a compromise with the main opposition party have so far failed and the government has shunned cooperation with international bodies such as the Venice Commission over the planned changes. Concerns have been rightly raised by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union’s Commissioner for Enlargement.
The government’s move to control the board comes after revelations in December of serious corruption and bribery allegations involving government ministers’ sons and the head of a bank. A week later came the resignation of four ministers and the launch of a new investigation that included the Prime Minister’s son. That investigation has stalled after the prosecutor leading it was removed from the case. Hundreds of police officers and scores of prosecutors have been demoted and rotated over the past month. The government has dismissed the corruption allegations as part of an “international conspiracy,” involving the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers inside the judiciary and police, to overthrow the prime minister.
Turkey’s criminal justice system is riddled with problems. The long-standing issue of unfair trials plus serious due process concerns have been compounded by the fact that the judiciary has traditionally adopted a highly politicized approach affecting Kurds, leftists, students, lawyers defending political activists and others. It has also thrown the net too wide to catch suspected anti-government coup-plotters. As it stands it will be a major challenge for Turkey to move away from the model of having a politicized judiciary, a key requirement for future EU membership. The last thing needed is to adopt an iron-fist policy making the judiciary little more than a department in the prime minister’s office.