Turkey’s Constitutional Court overturns controversial judicial bill

Today, the Turkish Constitutional Court partly overturned a controversial judicial bill. It thereby also demands a redefinition of the justice minister’s increased competences. The bill on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) was drafted by the government as a response to fraud and corruption allegations. It sparked weeks of debate over concerns on the independence of the judiciary.

The widely contested bill
On 26 February we wrote on how Turkey was to tighten its grip on the judiciary. Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül then signed into law the widely contested bill tightening the governments hold on the judiciary. The law would give the minister of Justice greater control over the independent Supreme board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) responsible for appointing and overseeing the members of the judiciary. Critics of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the new law is designed to tighten Erdoğan’s grip over the country.

A number of HSYK members were automatically dismissed after the law entered into force in February. New members were subsequently appointed with the final approval of Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ. The main opposition Republican People's Party CHP deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu called on the new members of the HSYK "to ethically resign" over the Constitutional Court's ruling. CHP had filed an appeal to the Court on 2 March, arguing that the law gave extraordinary authority to the justice minister.

Critics think that the main incentive for Erdoğan to push through this law is the feud with influential U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. The battle for control of the HSYK, which appoints senior members of the judiciary, lies at the heart this feud. Erdoğan believes that Gulen’s followers have built up influence in the police and judiciary over decades.  He therefore blames him for unleashing a corruption investigation he sees as an attempted "judicial coup" designed to undermine him in the run-up to presidential elections this year.

Brussels worried

The judiciary law had pushed Turkey away from the norms set by the European Union and had worried Brussels. It further strained the relations between the EU and Turkey. The EU Enlargement Commission wrote two letters asking the government to suspend it.

During a visit to Brussels, Erdoğan assured EU officials that the government would not compromise the independence of the judiciary. On his return, Erdoğan announced that the government would freeze the judicial bill if the opposition accepted a constitutional change restricting the HSYK. However, after talks mediated by President Gül failed to bear fruit, the government submitted the bill once again to the Parliament agenda amid renewed criticism.

Not the only law overturned
The court also overturned a related law that gave authority for the treatment and protection of private information to the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK).The opposition had criticized the law on the protection of privacy on the web, arguing that neither the BTK nor Turkey’s telecommunications authority, TİB, could be trusted to ensure the protection of users’ information.

The Constitutional Court also lifted the ban on Twitter, stating that it was a violation of freedom of speech. On 2 April the Court ordered authorities to unblock Twitter, saying the decision violated the rights of users who had appealed the decision.

By Merel Berkelmans

Sources: Hurriyet Daily News I, Foundation Max van der Stoel, Reuters, Hurriyet Daily News II.

Photo: Hurriyet Daily News

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