Putting the broken mirror back together, Bekir Berat Özipek
I would like to start with a quote from Jalal-ad Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet: “The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”

The outside world has been hearing many things about Turkey recently. Most of these things probably contradict each other.

But this is not because outsiders are looking at our country from a distance. We, too, discuss the climate we are in amongst ourselves, as well as the course of the country and the state of government in Turkey. Sometimes we look at the same political reality and produce divergent descriptions. This has been particularly true in recent months.

Let us examine Turkey's internal affairs in relation to two specific matters. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government presided over the harsh police intervention in the Gezi Park protests on the one hand, but it is also leading a settlement process on the Kurdish issue and an initiative to draft a civilian constitution on the other.

Which one of these reflects the government?

Actually, both of them. To get the real picture, we need to combine the broken pieces.

I think we should take all of the pieces into consideration. I also believe that the largest piece allows us to be somewhat optimistic.

Turkey has gone through a radical change in the last 10 years. A rapid democratization process began to take place in Turkey.

Judicial reforms were an important turning point for the road to democracy.

The most important event was the referendum of Sept. 12, 2010, which undermined the tutelage regime's influence on the judiciary. With this referendum, the high judiciary gained true democracy in terms of the organization and composition of its members.

In 2012 and 2013, further judicial packages introduced significant changes. A Human Rights Department was established within the Justice Ministry to prepare the legal grounds in Turkey for decisions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), translate these decisions into Turkish, provide them to judges and prosecutors and conduct training on these issues. Thanks to the Ministry's efforts, the ECtHR website began to make its decisions available in Turkish beginning in early November. Compliance with ECtHR case law has come to be expected in judges' decisions.

Now the government is proposing the introduction of a single umbrella organization for all of the higher judiciary. It seeks to divide the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) into two distinct organizations and pave the way for Parliament to elect some of its members. Also, it aims to allow HSYK members to stay in the organization for a maximum of one term.

One criticism of this process was a stipulated requirement that candidates must have been a judge for 20 years to be elected to the higher judiciary. Because of this requirement, it is suggested that the body will consist primarily of judiciary members espousing Kemalist authoritarianism. This criticism is certainly valid.

However, whether the judiciary can internalize such reforms is another question. Politicians have occasionally accused judicial figures of not releasing certain defendants, in defiance of the law. Speaker of Parliament Cemil Çiçek criticized the Constitutional Court and the justice system, saying, "The public tends to hold politicians responsible for everything, but they don't see bureaucrats working behind the veil." In reference to members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) İstanbul deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder said, "A host of reforms are being introduced, but the courts take no heed of them."

The Sept. 12, 2010 referendum was a significant step forward but not sufficient to ensure a fully functioning judicial system. Indeed, even after the change, the courts have produced a number of unlawful decisions. This shows that genuine judicial reform does not consist solely of amending legislation but must also be accompanied by a change of mentality.

In light of these developments, when we join the pieces of the mirror together by considering the positive results, such as the decreased number of ECtHR rulings on infringements of the law, the resulting picture still leaves room for optimism. This is particularly the case when we compare the current state of the judiciary with that of the old Turkey.

And yet, the volatility of Turkish politics and the lack of permanent assurances of reform still advise us to be cautious in our optimism.

Note: This is a summary of a speech titled “Judicial reform in Turkey: a critical assessment” given at a conference organized by the European Policy Center (EPC) and the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) in Brussels. 

Today's Zaman 22 December 2013

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