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Imagine the chaos if lower courts refused to abide by a Supreme Court ruling. That's happening in Turkey

Imagine the chaos if lower courts refused to abide by a Supreme Court ruling. That's happening in Turkey
A journalist poses with a portrait of Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan on June 19, 2017 in front of the Istanbul courthouse, where his trial is to take place. (Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey risks being plunged into a constitutional crisis, human rights groups and legal experts warn, as lower courts refuse to comply with a ruling by the country's top court ordering the release of jailed journalists.

The crisis has shaken advocates for the rule of law and could have consequences for Turkey's membership in several European bodies.

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The standoff began on Jan. 11, when Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled 11-6 that two journalists being tried by lower courts on charges of terrorism for links to a 2016 coup attempt must be released from prison pending a verdict. But four separate lower courts have refused to comply.

"The lower court rulings are shocking," said Nate Schenkkan, a project director with Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog organization. "Once the top court has issued a ruling, it has to be obeyed, there is no way around it. If the government wants to change the constitution, it can do that, but this is not the case. This is just a lower court saying, 'You are superior, but we think you are wrong.' "

The case at the center of the controversy involves Şahin Alpay, a political science professor, and Mehmet Altan, an economist, both columnists at leading newspapers. They were detained in July 2016, accused of ties to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed for the failed coup that killed 250 people. Alpay wrote a column for Zaman, a newspaper linked to Gulen that has since been shuttered, and many of its editorial staffers are being tried in similar cases.

Turkish riot police use water cannon and tear gas to disperse supporters at the Zaman daily newspaper's headquarters in Istanbul on March 5, 2016.
Turkish riot police use water cannon and tear gas to disperse supporters at the Zaman daily newspaper's headquarters in Istanbul on March 5, 2016. (Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images)

Gulen's organization has been declared a terrorist group by Turkey.

In court, both men told judges they had no knowledge of the coup plot. Both face aggravated life sentences on charges that include "attempting to overthrow the government" and having "prior knowledge of the coup attempt."

The Constitutional Court found that the journalists's pretrial detentions were disproportionate. While their trials could continue, the top court said the defendants must be released from custody.

Legal experts, meanwhile, pointed out the basis of the ruling had little to do with the case, but with fundamental rights that had been violated by the long detention of Alpay and Altan. The lower courts "must immediately comply with the Constitutional Court's ruling," Metin Feyzioglu, head of the Union of Turkish Bar Assns., told a conference of legal experts in Istanbul. "There is no need to have doctoral or professorial knowledge to understand this."

It is not the first case of the government expressing dismay with a ruling by the Constitutional Court. In 2016, judges ordered two journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, released pending a lower court verdict on treason charges, as part of an investigation into news coverage that alleged the Turkish government was supplying weapons to Islamic State militants in Syria.

"I can only remain silent on this decision. But I can't accept it. And I neither obey the decision, nor respect it," Erdogan said at the time. Dundar fled Turkey after his release and now lives in Germany.

In November, the European court announced it would not review more than 25,000 petitions related to the purge of about 150,000 civil servants in Turkey since the coup attempt, saying the applicants should first try a new state of emergency commission set up by Ankara to review the cases. The ruling was in response to an appeal by Turkish academics who were fired because they signed a petition calling for a cease-fire with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a separatist group Turkey and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have declared a terrorist organization.

Although punitive measures by the Council of Europe tend to take years, Schenkkan said an important precedent was being set by Azerbaijan. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled an opposition politician and blogger must be released, and in December, the Council of Europe opened proceedings that could expel the country from the organization.

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Farooq is a special correspondent.

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