Friday, March 28, 2008

Rights and Reciprocity

AKP has fallen under sharp criticism in recent days for its handling of recent arrests made in connection with the Ergenekon investigation. Although harsh criticism of AKP is nothing new, AKP should not be quick to dismiss recent complaints concerning the detention of Cumhuriyet columnist İlhan Selçuk and other journalists in dramatic arrests made just before daylight on March 22.

Little evidence has been presented into the arrests of the journalists and AKP being duly criticized for their detention. Selçuk is 83 years old and his late night arrest in particular has raised the ire of media already content to criticize AKP.

However, some of this criticism is coming from groups who are not strongly affiliated with the strict secularist left. One such group is the BİA-Net media rights-based monitoring group. 80 percent of the group's funding comes from the European Union's Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). By no means an organization out to destroy AKP, BİA-Net is one of other well-respected groups who have criticized the arrests and demanded that more information be released.

According to a recent article posted on the site by Ertugrul Kürkcü, the real issue at stake in the Ergenekon investigations is whether AKP will keep its pledge to ensure that the individual rights are protected throughout criminal proceedings. "The issue is not whether these people committed the “crimes” that have been ascribed to them; rather, it is about citizens’ rights not being protected when they are prosecuted and tried by police and judiciary," writes Kúrkcú.

Other criticisms of late launched against AKP include its renewed attention to the constitutional reforms and move to correct the long-criticized stance on party closures. The DTP also faces closure, but AKP detractors say the party did little to protest the closure law when it was not in their self-interest to do so. Given the highly-contentious nature of AKP and the high political costs involved in taking a bold stand against DTP's closure, I am not prepared to launch such criticism. However, it does underline the need for AKP to safeguard individual rights no matter how atrocious the person to whom they might belong (even Abdullah Öcalan?).

As any undergraduate enrolled in an introduction to political theory class can tell you, reciprocity is the essential cornerstone of a rights-based democracy. If a right is extended, there is a duty on the part of others not to violate that right. When it comes to AKP, the best defense of rights is no doubt to carefully safeguard and even promote the rights of others. The louder and more publicly AKP makes these arguments, the more it will assuage its liberal critics.

This is exactly the point Today's Zaman columnist Andrew Finkel made in his column on Tuesday. That article is excerpted below.

The legal writs and indictments are flying through the air like paper darts in a particularly unruly kindergarten class.

The chief prosecutor prepares a case to shut down the governing party. A week later, the police show up with Stasi-like timing at 4:30 a.m. to question the 80-something-year-old lead writer of the country's main opposition newspaper for purported involvement in a plot to overthrow the elected government. The Constitutional Court considers annulling a constitutional amendment that would allow headscarves to be worn in universities. A staunch opponent of headscarves and former rector of Istanbul University is detained over the weekend for his involvement in a criminal conspiracy that included the assassination of the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink…

So thick is the atmosphere of bitterness and accusation that it has become difficult to decide whether we are witnessing the wheels of justice grinding slowly or the second act of some grotesque tale of revenge.

There is a long legal road ahead before the courts rule on the legality of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The first step (which seems probable) is that the Constitutional Court must agree to hear the case -- even though this would be in defiance of precedent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The government has the means at its disposal to escape from the threat that it violated the secular nature of the Constitution. It may or may not be able to change the Constitution retrospectively with yet another amendment to make it more difficult for the courts to convict. However, it can more easily change the penalty. To take an example, when the government abolished the death penalty, all those convicted of capital crimes -- including Abdullah Öcalan -- benefited from the lighter sentence. By lifting the sanction of party closure and the banning of convicted politicians from holding public office for five years, the government can convert the threat facing it into a souped-up parking fine.

This does not, however, alter the harm that has been done to the prestige of the Turkish legal system. That the criminal courts now stand accused in public opinion (if not convicted) of using their powers to extract retribution from the government's opponents only makes this crisis worse. Until the case has been made in court, it is hard to know how serious the charges are against a new wave of suspects in the Ergenekon investigation into a murderous conspiracy to destabilize the government. If the case against them is weak, then further damage to the majesty of the law will have been done.

On trial, one highly respected lawyer put to me, is the quality of Turkish democracy -- can the will of the people through their elected representative rule in accordance with respect for inalienable human rights, or is Turkey to be run by those whose only mandate is a belief that only they know best?

However this is not the only issue. Also at stake is the principle that "the best defense of one's own rights is the defense of others." A cursory look through the back issues of the papers reveals a whole series of trials in which justice is seen to be denied. The trial of two noncommissioned gendarmes accused of an act of political provocation in the Kurdish town of Semdinli -- the bombing of a bookstore in which one person died and several others were injured -- continues to be postponed, hearing after hearing. Is it entirely a coincidence that when police tried to break up a demonstration over the Nevruz holiday in the city of Van (the site of that trial), it escalated into an ugly confrontation?

Another trial, which did not even make most of the papers, was the sentencing to 10 months' imprisonment (now pending appeal) of Eren Keskin, founder of the "Legal Aid for Victims of Sexual Harassment and Rape Under Detention Project." Ms. Keskin, herself a lawyer, was tried for her contribution to a public discussion in Cologne, Germany. She was accused of insulting the military under Article 301 -- a law which the government refuses even to amend.

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