Turkeys government tightens grip on the judiciary

Today, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul signed into law a widely contested bill tightening the governments hold on the judiciary. The new law gives 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 Erdogan say the new law is designed to tighten Erdogan’s grip over the country.

The government of Prime Minister Erdogan presented the bill as it battles a corruption scandal that implicated three cabinet ministers and their sons. Yesterday, a recording was made public in which Erdogan and his son allegedly discussed how to hide large sums of cash, stirring up protests against corruption. Erdogan claims the recordings to be fake. Critics claim the new judiciary law, along with a law tightening control over the internet that was already approved, is designed as an authoritarian response to charges of corruption made against the government.

The Parliament

Legislators violently contested the reforms introduced in the bill when it passed Parliament on 16 February. The opposition said the bill was a government maneuver to limit the fallout of investigations into fraud and corruption by the government. "The law is an apparent indicator of the ruling Justice and Development Party's [AKP] attempt to cover the corruption investigation by redesigning the judiciary" said Turkish opposition Republican Party (CHP) legislator Aykan Aydemir.

The bill was debated in a 20 hour marathon sitting, which turned violent. Opposition leader Ali Ihsan Kokturk got a bloodied nose and needed to go to hospital. Interesting, the government claimed the bill would strengthen democracy by taking back power from the judiciary they claim is under the influence of a powerful cleric, while opponents claim it to be an autocratic move to strengthen the rule of Erdogan.

Erdogan versus Gulen

The battle for the control over the HSYK lies at the heart of the feud between Prime Minster Erdogan and the pius and reclusive cleric Fethullah Gulen. Once, both men strode together against military led, secular, Turkey, now they are fierce enemies. The estrangement started in 2010 when peace talks with the Kurdish separatist party PKK started. Erdogan wanted direct negotiations with the top brass of the movement, while Gulen favored strengthening the rights and civilian constitution of all Kurds, thus taking away the main points of opposition. The break became final when Erdogan outlawed all the private prep schools in the country in 2013, half of which are owned by followers of Gulen.

Gulen leads a powerful worldwide Islamic movement called Hizmet and preaches a tolerant, modern form of Islam. He encouraged massive social engagement for the support of democratization and diversity while Erdogan is said to be a fundamental hardliner. Hizmet has millions of followers and is especially influential in the police and judiciary. Erdogan claims Gulen uses his influence amongst the judiciary to start corruption investigations to try to oust him from power.

EU Association

The new judiciary and internet laws push Turkey away from the norms set by the European Union, though Turkey has been seeking membership for years. Erdogan seems to have little respect for free speech and the rule of law. Erdogan’s tightening grip over the judiciary worries Brussels, fearing Erdogan will guide Turkey further away from European membership. It seems that with ongoing unrest in Syria and Ukraine, Turkey is no priority for the EU.

Source: Al Jazeera I, Al Jazeera II, Al Jazeera III, The Guardian, Reuters, The BBC.

Author: Koen Migchelbrink

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