While the Turkish military offensive in the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin is grabbing all the headlines, a constitutional crisis has erupted that could spell the end to the rule of law and the separation of powers in Turkey, legal experts and human-rights groups warn.
The crisis began when Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled on January 11 that two journalists being tried on terrorism charges relating to the 2016 coup attempt must be released pending a verdict. Since then, five different lower courts have failed to comply, incensing legal experts. “No lower court in Turkey has the right to defy rulings by the Constitutional Court,” said lawyer Veysel Ok. “According to the Constitution, the decisions of the Constitutional Court are final and binding. This means that the judicial chain of command has been broken. It means that the Constitutional Court is no longer a working branch of the judiciary, and no longer a legal remedy. This is a massive shock, an earthquake.”
The journalists Sahin Alpay, 73, arrested in July 2016, and Mehmet Altan, 65, arrested two months later, are being tried on charges of “trying to overthrow the government” and “links with a terrorist organization.” They stand accused of ties with the movement of US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government blames for the failed coup. Both men face aggravated life sentences if convicted. Press-freedom monitoring groups have been rallying for their release and that of their colleagues imprisoned during the post-coup crackdown, which extended Turkey’s record as one of the world’s biggest jailors of journalists.
The Constitutional Court ruled on individual applications made on behalf of Alpay and Altan, finding that their pretrial detentions violated their rights, citing a lack of tangible evidence that would justify the measure. Legal experts expected that this ruling would not only affect Alpay and Altan, but also set the precedent for the release of many more journalists in Turkey. According to the Turkish media platform P24, more than 150 journalists and media workers are currently behind bars, many of them on terrorism charges.
Veysel Ok, who filed the application to the Constitutional Court on behalf of Sahin Alpay, said that the verdict should have been a turning point for court cases against journalists. “This was the first such ruling after the coup attempt,” Ok said. “The judges did not only say that the pretrial detentions were unjustified, but also that there was not enough evidence for a crime to have been committed. This means that not only these two cases, but many more based on the same accusations should end in acquittal, according to the Constitutional Court.”
Three weeks later, both journalists are still in jail. The Turkish government has objected to the ruling, arguing ironically that the Constitutional Court had “exceeded” its authority. “The Constitutional Court has crossed over the lines drawn by the Constitution and the law, [it] acted as a first-instance court by making an assessment of the case and the evidence,” tweeted deputy prime minister and former justice minister Bekir Bozdag. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, too, rebuffed the verdict as “uninformed.”