Court decision deals blow to Erdogan but softening of pressure on critics unlikely
WASHINGTON - The decision by Turkish courts to keep two prominent government critics in detention despite an order by the country’s highest court to free them has deepened the crisis in the country and could spell further trouble for Ankara’s ties with Europe.
Turkey’s Constitutional Court on January 11 dealt a blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by ordering the release of newspaper columnists Sahin Alpay, 73, and Mehmet Altan, 65. In a majority decision, the court said the state had violated the rights of Alpay and Altan by putting them in jail for alleged support for the failed coup in 2016.
Alpay has been in detention since July 2016 and Altan was jailed in September 2016. Both were high-profile Erdogan critics before their arrest.
Despite the high court ruling, local courts in Istanbul refused to release the writers, arguing they had not received the formal decision from Ankara. Turkey’s Official Gazette published the Constitutional Court’s decisions about the two journalists on January 19, fulfilling a condition set by the lower courts, but Alpay and Altan remained in detention.
Critics accuse the Erdogan government of using the 2016 coup attempt as an excuse for a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in the country. Nearly 50,000 people have been jailed since 2016 and approximately 150,000 have lost their jobs for their alleged support for the coup. The government said it is trying to make sure that followers of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by Erdogan of being the coup’s mastermind, cannot launch another takeover attempt.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag condemned the ruling and accused the high court of going beyond its brief. Writing on Twitter, Bozdag compared the decision with an earlier one that freed another prominent journalist and Erdogan critic, Can Dundar. “The Alpay and Altan decision of the Constitutional Court is a bad and wrong repetition of the Can Dundar decision,” he wrote.
At the time of the Dundar release in 2016, Erdogan complained that lower courts should have resisted the top court’s orders to release the journalist. The refusal of the Istanbul courts to free Alpay and Altan appeared to demonstrate that judges took the hint from the government, critics said.
Andrew Gardner, senior adviser and researcher on Turkey for Amnesty International, said the initial Constitutional Court ruling was “incredibly important” because the high court had long been silent since Erdogan introduced emergency rule following the coup attempt of 2016. “I think the decisions of the lower court not to implement the Constitutional Court verdicts are symptomatic of a situation in which the courts lack any sort of independence and follow political direction,” he added.
The International Press Institute (IPI), a press freedom advocacy group, also criticised the Istanbul courts. “Turkey’s refusal so far to honour the court’s decision to free journalists Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay demonstrates the extent to which the rule of law has been undermined in the country,” the IPI said in a statement. A total of 151 journalists in Turkey are behind bars, the organisation said.
The order by the Constitutional Court to free the two writers came ahead of an expected ruling on the jailed journalists by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in France. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer representing Altan, told the Turkish T24 news website that the Constitutional Court was trying to “save its own prestige” with the ruling because the ECHR was expected to condemn Turkey for putting journalists in prison.
Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank in Brussels, said the refusal to let Alpay and Altan go puts Turkey in an “awkward position.” If Turkey’s Constitutional Court was ignored, the ECHR was likely to be seen by Turks as a remaining “effective legal route” for their problems. “This will damage Turkey’s image,” Paul said via e-mail.
That scenario raises the question of what happens if the ECHR orders the release of journalists from Turkish jails. As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is obliged to implement ECHR decisions. “If Turkey chooses not to comply with ECHR rulings it may be charged with violating the European Convention on Human Rights,” Paul wrote. Turkey could be expelled from the Council of Europe, she added.
The Constitutional Court decisions about Alpay and Altan were made on votes of 11-6, reflecting the political rifts in the court. Reports said eight judges appointed by former President Abdullah Gul, a supporter of pro-European reforms and a former political ally of Erdogan turned government critic, and three judges nominated by Gul’s secularist predecessor Ahmed Necdet Sezer voted for the release of the journalists. Six judges appointed by Erdogan and by parliament, which is dominated by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), voted to keep the accused in jail.
Given those divisions in the court, the ruling fanned a simmering row between Erdogan and Gul. The former president made headlines by criticising Erdogan’s tough policies in recent weeks and there has been speculation that Gul, who has remained widely respected since the end of his term as president in 2014, might challenge Erdogan in next year’s presidential election.
“Which secret hand is in play here?” Murat Kelkitlioglu, editor of the pro-government Aksam newspaper, asked after the court decision on Alpay and Altan. “Could it be the ones that fell off the train?” he wrote on Twitter in a reference to Gul. In a speech January 9, Erdogan targeted Gul without naming him, saying that “those who fell off the train will remain where they fell.”