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Thomas Hammerberg, Council of Europe: Turkey's courts and prosecutors' powers are putting defendants in an alarming position

June 29, 2012

The fate of Turkey's special courts hangs in the balance as criticism continues to grow over their sweeping powers. The Turkish government is now discussing curtailing or even abolishing the courts. But the courts' supporters argue they are key to demilitarizing the country.

This week the headquarters of one of Turkey's main trade unions was raided by police and dozens of its officials, including its leader, detained.

The raids are connected to an investigation of alleged links to the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. It was the latest controversial action by Turkey's specially-powered courts and prosecutors.

Set up in 2005 by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to replace state security courts, they were primarily created to fight terrorism and plots to overthrow the government.

One of the most high profile cases involves prosecutors' allegations that an army seminar in 2003 laid out plans to undermine Erdogan's government by planting bombs in historic sites in Istanbul and provoking an escalation of tension with Greece, to pave the way for a military takeover. The defendants deny the allegations and say the seminar was just a war game scenario and not an actual plot.

But the special courts' sweeping powers and their preparedness to use them is causing growing alarm.

European Union enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele visiting Istanbul this month, and added his voice to those concerns.

"The union has always criticized the legislation allowing specially authorized judges and prosecutors, so we have understanding for all those who questioned their existence," Fuele said.

Over 6,000 members of Turkey's main legal Kurdish party, including 32 elected mayors, are currently in jail awaiting trial or on trial in the special courts. Scores of journalists, human rights workers, environmentalists, as well as over 500 students also are incarcerated by the courts.

Thomas Hammerberg of the Council of Europe published a critical report of Turkey's judiciary system earlier this year. It says the courts and prosecutors' powers are putting defendants in an alarming position.

[The courts'] "Access to the material of the prosecutor and the time that the authorities are given in order to interrogate before a lawyer is in the picture, is another one. Those who are detained in such cases have problems with confidential talks with their lawyers. Aspects of that ... reduces the rights of people," Hammerberg said.

Erdogan has criticized the court promise for judicial reform. Deputy Prime Besir Atalay said Wednesday that reform could come as early as this weekend.

"Our PM had announced that we are working on it, that there is such work going on," he said.

The package is expected to be introduced Saturday, but reforming the courts' power has met strong resistance from within the government.

Supporters of the special courts argue they are crucial to driving the army out of politics.

Although political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University criticizes the courts for taking too long to wrap up the coup plot cases, he says they are playing an important role.

"I hope the judiciary will pull its act together, and go ahead and re-establish confidence in the public opinion that something is really happening and those plotters will be punished. These people are not saints, or at least the majority of them are not saints. They have been involved in coup plots, they ganged together, they killed people threatened people," Aktar said.

This month key members of the armed forces met with the prime minister and are reported to have pressed for an end to the investigation. Retired brigadier general Haldun Solmazturk says the courts are now undermining the army's effectiveness.

"There are currently almost 400 generals and admirals in jail now, including a former chief of staff. And the army has shown no reaction at all Clearly the army is under strict civilian control and beyond that the army itself is crippled," Solmazturk said.

With the country facing a potential conflict with neighbor Syria and a resurgence in fighting with Kurdish rebels, the days of Turkey's special courts could well be numbered.

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