Families of Turkey’s political prisoners fear coronavirus impact

The families of political prisoners, especially those in poor health, are worried for the safety of their jailed loved ones after Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said on Friday all family visits would be suspended for the next two weeks in an effort to contain coronavirus infections.

The ministry also said the temperature of everybody who enters or leaves prison would be checked. Requests by family members for permission to have extended phone calls or ‘closed visits’ – in which there is no physical contact between prisoner and visitor – seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Continue reading at Ahval!

Kurds want recognition of their courts – and their autonomy

Details haven’t emerged yet about the plan of the Kurds in Northeast Syria to prosecute in local courts the foreign ISIS-fighters they are holding captive. Besides judicial questions, it raises political dilemmas. What are the Kurds really after? Trials, or recognition of their autonomy?

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De berechting van IS-strijders – Handen schudden op Koerdische grond

De Koerden zijn bereid om buitenlandse IS-strijders zelf te berechten. Dat zou hun statuur in de wereld vergroten, een van hun vurigste wensen. Alleen hebben de Koerden geen erkende staat en dus ook geen erkende rechtbanken.

Lees verder bij De Groene Amsterdammer. The (slightly adjusted) English version is on my Patreon page!

After Belgian court ruling, PKK might be removed from EU’s terrorist organisations list

A ruling by Belgium’s highest court last week can have far-reaching consequences that can end the practice of enlisting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group which has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984, as a terrorist organisation in Europe.

The court approved a previous decision made by a lower court in March, which said the PKK could not be considered a terrorist organisation.

While Kurdish activists celebrated the Belgian court’s ruling, both Belgian and Turkish government officials firmly rejected it.

Continue reading at Ahval.

Selahattin Demirtaş: release order upon release order, but still in jail

Legally speaking, Selahattin Demirtaş should have been freed from prison three times already. Also legally speaking, he shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said so and a Turkish court said so. Despite that, the former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is not a free man. Meanwhile, on Sept. 18, the ECHR will look at the case again. Demirtaş’s team of lawyers have high expectations for the hearing.

Continue reading on Ahval!

Court case on use of Kurdish in politics draws varied reactions

Analysts see ruling as a positive symbolic step, but its practical impact is unclear. The Constitutional Court decision easing restrictions on use of Kurdish in political activities has received mixed interpretations, with observers offering cautious praise amid lingering uncertainty over the ruling’s legal ramifications.

The decision, which went into effect last week after being issued in July 2012, overturned article 117 of the political parties law, which outlined legal sanctions for violating the ban on using languages other than Turkish in political activities. However, article 81 of the law, which sets the specific restrictions, remains in force. The result is bans on use of Kurdish in political activities are still on the books, but no longer punishable by law.

Ramazan Demir, a lawyer who works for Kurds being prosecuted for political offences, outlined the ruling’s technical details. “Article 81 of the law on political parties says the use of any language other than Turkish [in political activities] is an act that must be punished, while article 117 arranges the punishments. The Constitutional Court ruling said that article 117 is against the constitution,” he told SES Türkiye.

Demir added that the ruling declared the two provisions unlawful under article 38 of the Turkish constitution, which states that only individuals can be held liable for criminal offences. “Article 81 holds the political party responsible for violations, so the Constitutional Court considers it against the constitution to punish a person for something he or she according to law can’t be held responsible for.”

Further reforms will be needed to clarify the uncertain status of article 81 of the political parties law in the aftermath of the court ruling. “The court gave the government the opportunity the repair the law, but the government hasn’t taken any action yet,” Demir told SES Türkiye.

Article 81 could be amended to allow courts to hold people responsible for the language they use during political activities. This seems unlikely, however, as restrictions on Kurdish have been liberalised in recent years. In 2010, for example, AKP-backed legislation amended the election law to allow use of Kurdish during political campaigns.

Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group Turkey director, said further changes to the political parties law would be central to a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. “For a long-term, comprehensible solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey and the end of PKK violence, the law on political parties has to be changed,” he told SES Türkiye.

Pope sees use of Kurdish as a way to protect cultural diversity, dismissing the idea that it will threaten Turkey’s unity. “Is Kurdish a threat or is Kurdish under threat? I think the latter, just as, for example, Arabic is [endangered] in Hatay province, where many Arabs live. Turkish is taking over,” he said.
He added that reforms facilitating use of Kurdish would carry mostly “symbolic” importance for daily political activities, since most Kurds understand Turkish.

“I think you can compare it to the Kurdish demand of having education in mother tongue. You can wonder how many people would actually really want it, but that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that it has to be made sure that there is no discrimination.”

Kurdish politicians often say that they need to speak Kurdish at political rallies because some in the audience don’t understand Turkish. Meanwhile, there are many Kurds who don’t know their mother tongue very well either, and wouldn’t understand speeches if they were made in Kurdish.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, an ethnically Turkish BDP-affiliated parliamentarian representing Mersin, agreed that the court ruling will have little impact on the party’s daily political operations. “We never waited for such a legal change, we already use Kurdish during meetings and rallies,” he toldSES Türkiye. “The laws concerning the use of other languages than Turkish in political propaganda should be liberated, just as using mother tongue in court was recently allowed by law.”

Commenting on Mersin, Kurcku added: “It’s a Turkish city with a heavy Kurdish population. If the BDP has a rally there, the Kurdish speakers usually prefer to speak in Kurdish. I speak in Turkish, and some others do, too. Our rallies are bilingual.”

On its website, the AKP said it has created “revolutionary openings and practices on the Kurdish issue,” adding that “the use of mother languages, local languages in political propaganda is no longer a crime”, which is in fact incorrect. The new ruling will lead to the acquittal of individuals facing prosecution or punishment for violating article 81 of the political parties law, according to Demir.

“A hearing is needed in which the judge decides to acquit the defendant. Judges have to follow rulings of the Constitutional Court, so in the coming months these people’s cases will come to an end one by one,” he said.

Look, there is a Turkish version of this article too!

Kurdish permitted in Turkish courts

ISTANBUL – The Turkish parliament has passed a law that permits the use of Kurdish in court houses. The right to defend oneself  in one’s mother tongue is an important demand of the Kurdish political movement.

The law was approved after an emotional debate. Some opposition MP’s claim the use of any other language than Turkish in courts will break the unity of the country.

Kurdish MP’s on the other hand think the law doesn’t go far enough: only in certain parts of a court case will the use of other languages than Turkish will be permitted, and the accused has to pay for a translator himself. For those reasons the law also doesn’t meet EU standards.

The Turkish government says it is determined to solve the Kurdish question in the country. This law is part of that process.

In Turkey hundreds of political court cases against Kurds are in stalemate because the use of Kurdish has been totally forbidden up until now.

Parliamentary immunity crisis seen as setback

A move to lift BDP deputies’ immunity hurts prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Kurdish conflict, observers say.

A government proposal to strip immunity from several deputies with ties to the BDP opposition party could force the Kurdish representatives from Turkey’s political process, observers said.

The prime minister office’s recently submitted to parliament of a motion seeking to strip the immunity of 10 deputies tied to the BDP. Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said that the proposal would be “disastrous” for Turkish democracy and paves the way for the government to give courts authority to prosecute the parliamentarians for “links with a terrorist organisation.”

“If their immunity is lifted, the government is basically telling them to go to the mountains,” he told SES Türkiye.

“There are people in the BDP group who are discussing the new constitution that will define how Turks and Kurds will co-exist in this land, and now you take action to exclude them,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag moved to downplay concerns, saying deputies won’t automatically be removed from parliament or prosecuted if their immunity is lifted.

“Deputies whose immunity is stripped will continue their work as parliamentarians, it is just that the ban on prosecuting and investigating them will be removed,” he said in a statement posted on the ruling party’s website.

This most recent dispute over immunity was triggered by the so-called “hugging incident” in August, when BDP deputies were filmed embracing and chatting with PKK members after the militants stopped the parliamentarians’ convoy during an identity check on a road in rural Hakkari.

The reaction from other parties in parliament was fierce. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in September that “the pictures in the media already amount to very serious criminal complaints.”

He added: “I believe the justice system will do what is necessary. And then we will do what is necessary, if the job falls to us,” according to Turkish media reports.

Following the end of Kurdish political prisoners’ hunger strike last month, government officials signaled that negotiations with the Kurdish movement, including the BDP and PKK, could resume, creating hope that there would be positive developments toward a solution.

Journalist Necmiye Alpay of the Peace Assembly, an initiative of intellectuals to reach peace in Turkey through democratic means, viewed the situation as test for democracy in the country.

“The parliamentary way is the only way to solve the Kurdish issue,” she told SES Türkiye. “If their immunity is lifted, it means Turkey is taking another step towards being a dictatorial … country instead of a European one respecting democratic values.”

Referring to the immunity issue, President Abdullah Gul said Turkey should beware of going down a “dead-end street,” according to media reports.

Gul added that “there are also examples from our own recent political history of what we tried in the past.” He was referring to 1994, when four Kurdish deputies from one of the BDP’s forerunner parties were stripped of immunity. They were jailed for supporting the PKK, leading to international criticism of democracy in Turkey.

It is not clear if parliament will actually debate the motion submitted by the prime minister’s office. There are 757 files concerning parliamentary immunity pending discussion, but they have all been postponed.

If there is a vote, the AKP and MHP together hold 377 seats in parliament, 10 more than the two-thirds of members required to lift immunity. MHP members have voiced support for the motion.

Aktar said postponing the debate would be positive for democracy.

“But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The government is so keen on carrying out its own policies that it doesn’t seem to see the consequences of this,” he told SES Türkiye. “It will be an invitation for the elected officials of the Kurdish political movement to quit the political arena.”

BDP Mersin deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu, whose immunity could be lifted, told SES Türkiye it is not clear what his parliamentary group will do if any of their members are stripped of immunity.

“We have not taken a decision about that yet,” he said when asked if they would consider leaving the assembly.


Slowly but surely

In Turkey, the need for reform is large – as is the country’s capacity to implement these reforms. So, how effectively does governance in Turkey serve the needs of present and future generations, asks Fréderike Geerdink.

Let’s start with the good news. Starting with the bad news would mean stating that Turkey is performing rather badly when comparing OECD countries in terms of governance and quality of democracy. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’sSustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2011 rank Turkey at the very bottom of 31 nations in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). This might give the impression that the country is making no progress whatsoever – and this isn’t true.

Turkey is making good progress in some economical fields and in social affairs when it comes to creating a more equitable pension system, for example. These issues contribute to the state of democratization and sustainability of a country – and that is what the SGI is about.

The SGI is a cross-national survey of governance in the OECD that identifies reform needs and highlights forward-looking practices. Whereas the Status Index examines states’ reform needs in terms of the quality of democracy and performance in policy fields, the Management Index focuses on governance capacities in terms of steering capability and accountability. The survey was done for the first time in 2009; this article is based on the 2011 report. The next edition will be available in 2014.

31 developed, industrialized nations, committed to human rights, democratic pluralism and with an open-market economy were selected. The overall winner in the Status Index to date is Sweden, followed by Norway. The overall looser, however, is Turkey mainly due to some deficiencies in terms of the quality of democracy..

Fiscal Targets

Let’s talk about the economy. Turkey hasn’t been hugely affected by the global economic crisis. The government was optimistic about its own economy, based on for example having a healthy banking system and following prudent fiscal and monetary policies over the past few years. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy didn’t do well in the first half of 2009 and the government decided to take measures to deal with the effects of the global crisis on the economy. A medium-term program was announced in the same year, outlining fiscal targets, proposing an exit strategy from the crisis and providing forecasts for major macroeconomic variables. The purpose is to achieve a sustainable growth rate in the aftermath of the crisis and to raise society’s welfare. The program runs till the end of 2012.

Moreover, policies regarding the budget composition led to a raise in the budget share dedicated to social security spending. That turned out to be a serious step in the direction of more social equality as well as sustainability. For the first time in the history of the republic military expenditures were cut in favor of spending on health and education.

Since 2007, Turkey’s budget deficit has grown: from 1.6 per cent of GDP to 5.5 per cent of GDP in 2009. In this field Turkey is doing better than other countries examined in the SGI such as Ireland and Italy. Turkey is also in better shape than Portugal and Spain, and the country has managed the financial crisis without help from the International Monetary Fund.

Thus, regarding the question as to whether budgetary policy is fiscally sustainable Turkey scores 6.5 points out of 10: better than Germany and Austria, but slightly worse than Canada, Denmark and Australia.

Turkey is Aging Fast

Turkey’s pension policy is also making progress. It scores 6 points out of 10, leaving a whole list of countries behind it, for example Greece, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, France and Belgium. But it’s still doing a bit worse than Poland, Hungary, Austria and South Korea.

With the Social Security and General Health Insurance Law, which went into force in October 2008, the pension and health system was radically modified. The new law embraces all social groups, including those not formally employed, and assures universal access to health services on equal terms. Those under the age of 18 years are covered by the health insurance scheme without having to pay premiums.

The pension system was changed with the new law as well. And there was dire need for this: Turkey’s population may be young, but it is aging fast: In 2001, 4 million people received pension benefits, in 2010 that number grew to 7.25 million. Groups that were not entitled to any pension security before do now get a pay-out, although the payments are far from assuring a livelihood. Further reforms are needed, if only to close the financial gap in the system: the revenues by far don’t meet the expenses.

Media Freedom

In many fields where Turkey is not doing well, however, good policies on paper don’t always lead to good practice. This is true, for example, when examining media freedom and pluralism.

For example, the Turkish law restricts media owners’ shareholders rights, but Turkey’s biggest media owners have substantial investments in other sectors, including energy and construction, which undermines media independence. The government appoints the general director of the public broadcast institution which makes it possible for the government to exercise tutelage over the administration of the public media.

Media companies are split into “proponents” and “opponents” of the government. It is argued that the government has facilitated the establishment of “proponent” media organizations by providing easy credit and also by indirectly threatening “opponent” media owners by opening tax-related procedures against them.

As of February 2008, there were 24 business groups in the national print and broadcast media; two of them control the majority of the sector which leads to the dominance of certain ideas and opinions. In short, the SGI state that the current media structure has nothing to do with the principles of the Council of Europe on promoting media pluralism.

Turkey does leave some other countries behind, though, when discussing the question if the media are independent and express a diversity of opinion and if government information is accessible: Here the SGI awards Turkey 6 points(the same as Greece, France and Austria), with South Korea scoring only 4.7 points and Slovakia 5 points out of 10. Better than Turkey? Among others Canada, Mexico and Spain.

Graveyard of Political Parties

Another interesting question that SGI discusses is if the Turkish state protects political liberties. A striking description of Turkey here is that the country is the graveyard of political parties. It was so in the past, and it is today. The Constitutional Court has banned 25 parties since it was established in 1961. Outlawed parties are usually accused of pursuing Kurdish nationalist or Islamist politics. In 2008, the court stopped just short of outlawing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Furthermore, Turkey still uses a 10 per cent election threshold for parliamentary representation. This represents the most significant legal obstacle to fair political representation. Smaller groups are not represented in the parliament, and also in other ways they are often not taken seriously. That becomes clear when examining the anti-discrimination policies of Turkey.

Article 10 of the Turkish constitution states that “all individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion and sect, or any such considerations.” Besides that, however, there are no laws to fight discrimination, affecting mostly ethnic and religious minorities, disabled persons, persons with non-mainstream sexual orientations, women and elderly people.

How deeply discrimination against, for example, gays and lesbians is rooted in society became apparent when the Court of Cassation ruled against the closure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transgender “Lambda Istanbul Solidarity Association”. And it added a statement saying that the association should not “encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual behavior with the aim of spreading such sexual orientations.”

Good Outlook

However, let’s end on an encouraging note: Firstly, when examining how effectively the Turkish government develops strategic policy solutions and fosters dialogue in the process, Turkey scores rather well: SGI ranks it on place 19 of 31 nations in the OECD – ahead of Belgium, France and South Korea, for example.

Secondly, comparing the SGI 2009 and 2011, Turkey made improvements in all fields in the survey except security policy. Also regarding the quality of democracy Turkey’s score rose slightly. Yet several minor improvements in areas such as economy and employment, social affairs and environmental and education policies have been achieved, particularly with regard to improving the sustainability of public budgets and creating a more equitable pension system. Turkey is making progress, albeit slowly.

You can find this article on the site of SGI News here.

Life imprisonment for coup plotting Turkish generals

ANKARA  – Three former Turkish generals have beensentenced to life imprisonment on Friday. They were on trial for planning a coup against the government in 2003. Because the coup plans didn’t lead to an actual coup, they can be released after twenty years. Thirty-four other officers were acquitted.

These verdicts are the first from trials over coup plans. Hundreds of officers were on trial because they supposedly wanted to create chaos in the country with terror attacks. The chaos would give them the opportunity to bring down the government.

A total of 78 suspects were sentenced to 18 years imprisonment, 214 of them got 16 years, 28 suspects got 13 years and four months. The high sentences caused intense reactions in Turkey. The biggest opposition party CHP states that the trial ‘has been a political trial from the very beginning’.

There is heavy discussion about evidence being tampered with in the so-called Sledgehammer case. Not only the accused’s lawyers are convinced of tampering, but also some supporters of the case admit there is something not right with the evidence presented in court. Investigations into the evidence by two Turkish universities and an American investigation bureau proved that there had been major interference with the mainly digital evidence.

The debate about the coup plans has been intense from the very beginning. The Turkish army has a history of not hesitating to stage coups, but that doesn’t prove that high military personnel were now also involved in plans to stage a coup. The plans were supposedly made in 2003. The current AKP government had been in power for one year. Among members of the army there was a deep mistrust of the leaders of the AKP, who are rooted in the political-Islamic movement. The last coup, against such an Islamic-oriented government, was in 1997, when the army forced Prime Minister Erbakan to step down, using a memorandum.

Ever since the AKP has been governing Turkey, the power of the army has been limited. Many lawyers, academics and political analysts believe that power in the country has now been taken over by judges and prosecutors appointed by the AKP, and that they never intended to give the generals and officers a fair trial.