Turkey may be seen by many in the Middle East as a democratic role model, but inside the country, government critics assert that improper practices during pre-trial detention reveal a less-than-firm commitment to the rule of law on Ankara’s part.
Thousands of Turkish citizens have been languishing in jail for years awaiting trial under sweeping anti-terror laws. Such is the scale of the problem that the government is being accused of systematically using this practice to punish its opponents.
"These people are kidnapped," said Ertugral Kurkcu, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). "They are being held for years and there is no evidence they have committed any violent crimes. They are just opponents of the government."
The BDP and its supporters are among the hardest hit by pre-trial detentions.
Turkey's Human Rights Association, a non-governmental organization, reports that over 6,000 BDP members are currently detained on conspiracy charges in a three-year anti-terror probe by Turkish police into an alleged organization called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) that the government claims functions as the urban wing of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The government claims that the anti-terror laws need to be retained to counter the PKK’s ongoing threat to Turkish stability and democracy. Official fingers are pointed at the judiciary for any excesses.
Only a handful of convictions have been brought since the PKK probe started in 2009; the vast majority of detainees are still awaiting trial. Over a dozen elected mayors, along with senior party members, as well as trade union activists and human rights workers, are among those in prison. On February 13, 149 individuals joined their ranks in the same probe.
Despite months or even years of incarceration, many of the detained – including 43 of the current 104 jailed journalists, the news site Bianet.org reported -- have not been told what charges they face.
"These are unlawful detentions," stated Riza Turmen, a former judge for the European Court of Human Rights, and now an opposition member of parliament for the center-left People's Republican Party. "There is no reason given by the judge why people are detained. There is no reason why other measures such as bail are not considered. This is why Turkey has had so many convictions against it by the European Court."
In 2011, Turkey received 228 convictions from the European Court of Human Rights for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights – making it Europe’s most frequent offender. Eighty-three of the cases were related to the length of judicial proceedings against detainees.
Among the cases the court is presently hearing, two are for Turmen's parliamentary colleagues, Mustafa Balbay and Mehmet Haberal, who have been in jail for nearly three years awaiting trial for alleged involvement in a supposed military conspiracy against the government, known as Ergnekon. Scores of others also are awaiting trial in the same case.
Critics of both the PKK and the Ergenekon probe argue that they are being deliberately delayed because much of the evidence is flimsy or manufactured. Ultimately, most defendants will be acquitted, they claim.
The Council of Europe in a report published in January on the Turkish judiciary system shared this concern over pre-trial detention. The Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammerberg, who is also the report's author, asserted that “quite a number of those detained” for alleged ties to the KCK “should not be in prison at all.”
Hammerberg, who spent weeks meeting with senior judiciary members while researching the report, said there is little attempt to hide the fact that pre-trial detention is being used as a punishment. In Diyarkabir, the urban center of Turkey’s predominantly ethnic Kurdish southeast, one prosecutor commented that “[a]t least, they will learn a lesson” by spending time in jail before the trial, the commissioner reported.
"But why does the penitentiary system take on the role to teach lessons to people who perhaps may be innocent?” Hammarberg asked, calling preliminary detentions of as long as 10 years “absolutely outrageous.”
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin seems to be heeding such criticism. In January, he announced that arrest warrants, or refusal of bail “will now have to be clearly written out;” part of a series of reforms meant to address domestic and international criticism of Turkey’s pre-trial detentions.
In total, 88 reforms to the judicial system are currently being pushed through parliament. Some sentences under the anti-terror law will be reduced; a move that human rights groups says could lead to the release of some pre-trial detainees. Journalists could also see jail sentences suspended on the basis they did not repeat the offense. Judges would also be banned from using the anti-terror law to ban the publication of newspapers for a month.
But the reform program has already met with deep skepticism.
"Cosmetic reforms!" huffed Republican Party MP Turmen, who argues that the proposals do not address judges simply assuming that those charged under the anti-terror law “will abscond or destroy evidence, or threaten witnesses,” and clapping them in jail pending trial.
"When it comes to tackling Turkey’s big human rights challenges, this reform package is little more than window dressing," agreed Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkish representative for the US-based Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch, however, did term “positive” the decision to have judges “justify” a decision for pre-trial detention.
Even if the reforms are passed, few Turks expect the immediate release of the thousands of government opponents in pre -trial detention.
If the government is using pre-trial detention as a weapon against its opponents, it may be counterproductive, warned Kurkcu, the BDP deputy. He claims that the party’s membership is growing, saying “people are going to react by joining the ranks of the opposition.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.