Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has waded into a brewing judicial crisis, accusing the country’s highest court of making mistakes and defending an unprecedented criminal investigation against its judges.
The comments on Friday stoked a debate over the rule of law after the appeals Court of Cassation unexpectedly challenged the authority of the Constitutional Court this week, making a criminal complaint against judges of the Constitutional Court.
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The dispute revolves around jailed lawyer Can Atalay, one of seven defendants sentenced last year to 18 years in prison as part of a trial that also saw the award-winning philanthropist Osman Kavala jailed for life.
The 47-year-old Atalay was allowed to run from jail in May’s general election and was elected to parliament as a member of the leftist Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP).
The Constitutional Court ruled last month that the jailed parliamentarian should be released – a ruling the appeals court said was unconstitutional.
“Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court has made many mistakes in a row at this point, which seriously saddens us,” Erdogan told reporters on a flight back from Uzbekistan, according to a text published by his office on Friday.
“The Constitutional Court cannot and should not underestimate the step taken by the Court of Cassation on this matter,” he said.
Turkey’s bar association and the main opposition party have denounced the appeals court’s ruling as an “attempted coup”, and hundreds of members demonstrated, many of them lawyers in legal robes, chanting “justice” on the streets of the capital on Friday.
They marched more than 10km (6 miles) from the Ankara courthouse to the Ahlatlibel district, where the Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation are located side by side.
“Our citizens need to understand that this struggle is not just a struggle of lawyers, it is a struggle for the constitution,” said the head of the Ankara Bar Association, Mustafa Koroglu.
Joining the march in front of the Constitutional Court building, the new leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ozgur Ozel, said the latest judicial crisis was “an attempt by Erdogan to overhaul the constitutional order”.
“The president, who takes his power from the constitution, supports Court of Cassation’s actions ignoring the constitution. Constitutional Court rulings are binding for everybody, according to the constitution,” Ozel said, urging Erdogan to protect the constitution.
Erdogan told his ruling AK Party members to support the appeals court challenge, appearing to take aim at some in its ranks who had criticised the move.
‘Degradation of rule of law’
In comments made later at a ceremony in Ankara, Erdogan said the dispute between the two top courts showed the need for a new constitution, reflecting his longstanding position that parliament should take up the matter next year.
The latest crisis showed that Erdogan wants “more control over what happens in Turkey, including a judicial system that does what he wants, such as prosecuting and imprisoning his critics and opponents”, according to analyst Gareth Jenkins.
“His preference is to do things according to the constitution. That is why he has amended the current constitution in 2010 and 2017 and is now talking about a completely new one,” he added.
Legal experts said such a crisis between the country’s two most prominent courts was unprecedented and underlined concerns that the judiciary has been bent to Erdogan’s will.
It coincided with the European Commission’s release of an annual report on Turkey’s long-stalled European Union membership bid, in which it underlined “serious backsliding” on democratic standards, the rule of law and judicial independence.
The commission also said Turkey did not comply with the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms in its “counterterrorism” operations.