Special Report: How Turkey’s courts turned on Erdogan's foes

Under Erdogan, thousands of judges and prosecutors have been sacked by the government’s own count

Reuters May 04, 2020
Under Erdogan, thousands of judges and prosecutors have been sacked by the government’s own count. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

ISTANBUL: It took 16 judges to convict Kurdish politicians Gultan Kisanak and Sebahat Tuncel belonging to a terrorist organisation last year.

Their trial in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, was concluded in just a dozen sessions, but during that time the three-judge panel was in constant flux. The women, who maintain their innocence, were brought to court only once - to hear the “guilty” verdict.

Their lawyer, Cihan Aydin, said mounting a proper defence was all but impossible because he never knew who was going to be sitting in judgment. The judges, several of them young and inexperienced, were switched without explanation.

“The chief judge was changed four times as well,” said Aydin, a human rights lawyer and chair of the local bar association. “At every hearing there was a new group of judges, and every time we had to start the defence from the beginning.”

The tumult turned the proceedings on their head. “It was impossible for the judges to read the thousands of pages in the case file, so each time we had to summarise and explain what was in the indictment,” Aydin said. “It became our job to teach the judges.”

The court declined to comment about the case.

Terrorist charges like the ones used to convict the two women have become commonplace in Turkey, especially since a failed attempt by parts of the military to overthrow President Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. Mass arrests followed.

Also increasingly common is the practice of switching judges during a trial, more than a dozen lawyers and other legal sources told Reuters. Turkish officials say such changes are merely routine, for health or administrative reasons. Lawyers interviewed by Reuters say they are convinced it’s a way for the government to exert control over the courts.

“The constant reshuffling of judges is a simple but very useful mechanism. For every time the government gets involved like this in the judiciary, there are hundreds more cases where the judges learn their lesson” not to act against perceived government interests, said Gareth Jenkins, a political analyst based in Istanbul.

Neither Erdogan’s office nor the justice ministry responded to detailed questions for this article by the time of publication. Mehmet Yilmaz, deputy chairman of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the state-body that appoints law officials, said Turkey’s legal system is “not behind any country in the world.”

The judiciary has been used as an instrument to advance political agendas in Turkey for decades. Under Erdogan, his opponents say, it has been deployed as a political cudgel and hollowed out to an unprecedented degree.

Under his purge, thousands of judges and prosecutors have been sacked, by the government’s own count. They have been replaced by inexperienced newcomers, ill-equipped to handle the dramatic spike in workload from coup-related prosecutions. At least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors now have three years of experience or less, Reuters calculated from Ministry of Justice data.

“We aren’t claiming that the judiciary was independent from governments before,” said Zeynel Emre, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “However, a period like this where the government wields the judiciary like a sword on politics and especially the opposition is unprecedented.”

At the time of their arrest in late 2016, Kisanak and Tuncel were prominent figures in the Kurdish minority’s decades-long campaign for social, economic and political equality. Kisanak, 58, a former journalist, had recently been elected Diyarbakir’s mayor. Tuncel, 44, was a lawmaker in parliament, representing an Istanbul constituency.

They were jailed for 14 and 15 years, respectively, for spreading terrorist propaganda and belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey and branded a terrorist organization by the US and EU. They denied the charges.

Istanbul Bar Association chairman Mehmet Durakoglu said that by using the judiciary as a tool against its opponents, Erdogan’s government “has achieved what it couldn’t do by political means” at the ballot box. The Turkish government counters that its legal system is as advanced as any Western country and that threats against its national security require strict anti-terrorism laws.

Yilmaz, from the state Council of Judges and Prosecutors, acknowledged “we have been experiencing problems like an increase in work. Our workload is considerably above the global average.”


Erdogan has towered over Turkish politics for nearly two decades, first as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014, and since then as president.

There have been challenges to his rule. In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest policies they deemed authoritarian. The trigger was a government plan to build on a small park in downtown Istanbul. Two years later, peace talks broke down between the government and the militant PKK, which for decades had been waging a violent separatist campaign. In July 2016 came the coup attempt.

On each occasion, the authorities responded with a crackdown.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the second-biggest opposition party in Turkey’s parliament, says thousands of its members and supporters have been detained or jailed since the collapse of peace talks between Turkish authorities and the PKK. Among them is the party’s former co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been held since 2016 on terrorism charges that he denies.

Lawyers defending HDP supporters have also faced prosecution. In 2017, Aydin, the chairman of the Diyarbakir lawyers’ bar, was fined for disrupting court proceedings. The complaint stemmed from 2012, when Aydin and other defence lawyers walked out of a mass trial of Kurdish activists accused of belonging to the PKK. Aydin and his colleagues were protesting the court’s decision to dismiss their clients from the chamber. The case against Aydin was only brought up five years later.

The practice of keeping watch over lawyers and activists “is also part of the same trend, the same mentality, keeping track of everyone and making sure there is a file ready against everyone, just in case,” said Aydin. “If you start talking too much, if you criticise the government too much, if you take on high profile cases, or in my case, if you become a famous lawyer.”

Prosecutions have extended to academics. Around four dozen academics were convicted of spreading terrorist propaganda for signing a petition in 2016 that called for an end to the conflict with Kurdish militants and criticised the Turkish military’s campaign in the Kurdish southeast. They were sentenced to up to three years in jail.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which oversees laws, overturned the verdicts last year, ruling the prosecutions violated academics’ right to freedom of expression. A few days later, responding to criticism of its decision by some politicians and media, the court issued a statement saying the ruling “does not mean that the Constitutional Court shares the same opinions or supports these opinions.”

Yonca Demir, an academic at Istanbul Bilgi University was among the more than 2,000 signatories to the petition that sparked the mass arrest. She called her trial a sham.

“Whatever you say in court has no impact whatsoever on the judges. From the indictment to the rulings, everything was a copy-paste,” Demir said. “Yes, everyone has political views, but they should stick to the law. Instead, they show their ideologies in court.”