Friday, February 3, 2012

Reforming the Judiciary . . . And What About the Students?

The government is planning a judicial reform package to address criticisms it is facing at home and abroad as to lengthy detention times (the time prisoners are held before they are even formally arrested, let alone indicted and then tried) and the investigation and imprisonment of journalists accused of either being terrorists and/or propagating terrorism through their writing. The bill is indubitably in part a response to the large number of ruling against Turkey by the European Court of Human Rights.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin announced the package at a press conference on Jan. 18, and typical of such massive overhauls, the government contains numerous provisions, all more or less related to the actual goal of addressing the problem, and which make the law, much more its actual impact, incredibly difficult to assess (for an attempt, see Sedat Ergin in Hurriyet). A bit on the new law from Hurriyet Daily News:
“Once enacted, the amendments would reduce the number of people who await trial in jail,” he said, adding that judges would be required to provide concrete justification for arrest orders and would be able to use alternative measures, such as judicial control, for a wider range of offenses.

Turkey’s long pre-trial detentions have been the subject of much criticism recently, as nearly half of those behind bars are not yet convicted of any crime.

The prospective reforms would also aim to widen media freedoms, Ergin said. A provision that allows for the suspension of publications on grounds of “terror propaganda” will be abolished, and confiscation orders for publications will be removed after a transition period, he said.

An amendment to reduce the jail term for those who “assist terrorist organizations” is also included in the package.

The reforms would suspend all probes into offences committed via the media that are punishable with jail terms of up to five years, Ergin said. If the same offense is not re-committed within three years, the cases would be scrapped for good.

The package aims to relieve the courts of the huge burden related to relatively minor crimes such as driving offenses, check fraud and clandestine electricity use. Such breaches would be penalized with fines and the courts would be relieved of about two million cases, the minister said.
It seems there are at least two positive steps forward in the legislation: first, that the practice of detaining suspects before they are indicted, let alone tried, might become somewhat more difficult; and, second, that those accused of committing a crime carrying a maximum sentence of five or less years will perhaps not be imprisoned while they await a verdict.

As to the first, prosecutors will have to provide concrete evidence to courts before detaining suspects. Yet how this will work in practice is yet to be determined since the standard of "concrete" is obviously open to interpretation, especially by specially-authorized courts with unique powers that continue to operate without much regard for any consistent application of a standardized rule of law.

As to the second, many of those currently detained are facing sentences for crimes that carry maximum sentences much greater than five years, and grouping together charges to make for hefty potential sentences is a common judicial practice. If there is a will to detain someone, there is still very much a means. The most controversial detentions, those that have taken place in the context of the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer investigations and the KCK operations, have most routinely charged suspects with being members of terrorist organizations, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of ten years. These suspects would not be eligible for the alternative pre-trial arrangements vaguely described in the law.

Further, it is not clear whether those facing five years or less in prison will most definitely be released before they are tried. That said, the maximum sentence for spreading propaganda/assisting a terrorist organization has been reduced to five years, which, depending on implementation, might free some journalists and lawyers who are charged with the lesser offense.

And What About the Students?

PHOTO from Radikal

As many critics point out, the judicial reform bill does not address the increasingly conspicuous problem of jailing student protestors. Turkey has a long history of lively student dissent, and the recent rise in the number of students imprisoned for political protest has garnered much attention in the opposition press.

Last month, Cumhuriyet  reported that approximately 500 students have been jailed for the political activities, mostly young leftists staunchly opposed to the AKP-led government. The students are frequently jailed under the Anti-Terrorism Law, and according to Cumhuriyet and other reports in the press, are often placed in solitary confinement in F-type prisons.

One of the most controversial cases involving student protestors in Malatya who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization for distributing tickets for a Grup Yorum concert and participating in celebrations marking International Women's Day. There are numerous other cases like this one, and the details vary from paper to paper. That said, the sheer number of detentions, arrests, and the lengthy sentences, in addition to prison conditions, are becoming a major human rights issue. There has also been attention paid to what happens to the students even if they are eventually acquitted and released, in addition to penalties imposed not by prosecutors and courts, but by administrators and universities. For this latter dimension, see this article from Radikal.

Many columns addressing Ergin's judicial reform touched specifically on the topic of students, which goes to so just how important the issue is becoming for those who do not feel their rights are secure under the current government. Whether the AKP will address the issue is yet to be seen, but opposition forces are certainly not letting the issue go by the wayside. For more reports of students either in prison or waiting trial for crimes related to political protest, see accounts in English from human rights monitor Bianet.

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