Turkish gov’t to curtail right to defense, undo legal reform

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has drafted a single-article bill aimed at curbing the rights of defendants and the lawyers who represent them, in what opposition parties say will be a major blow to the right to a fair trial, according to a report by Today’s Zaman.

The bill in question could not be included in the recently adopted omnibus bill due to stiff objections raised by opposition parties during discussion at a parliamentary commission. It was adopted in the parliamentary Justice Commission on Wednesday and sent to be discussed in the plenary session.

Opposition deputies who are among the members of the Justice Commission claim that the intention behind the bill is to keep court cases confidential in the ongoing probe against the faith-based Hizmet movement. Speaking to Today’s Zaman, Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Ali Rıza Öztürk said, “The government is changing the law so that it can carry out an operation against the Hizmet movement.”

The AK Party has responded to graft allegations raised against some of its ministers and businessmen close to it by making changes to the judiciary in an attempt to tighten its grip over judicial processes. The AK Party has cited a conspiracy, backed by the Hizmet movement, of being behind the graft allegations. His government has also purged members of the police department who are believed to be affiliated with Hİzmet from the force.

In a recent operation in Adana, several police officers were detained for allegedly placing a bugging device in the prime minister’s room. However, a court released them, saying there was not enough evidence to keep them in custody. Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly expressed his outrage about the releases, saying, “The evidence is there, but the court is letting them go.”

The proposed change is widely seen as a continuation of the AK Party’s attempts to bring the judiciary under its control and influence the outcomes of legal proceedings. If the new bill is adopted, lawyers and attorneys will not be able to examine the files during the investigation phases of proceedings against their clients.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ presented the proposal, struggling with his presentation, as even he found it hard to defend. “The investigations need to be confidential. If not, I wouldn’t be proposing to bring back this rule we abolished only two months ago. I was very supportive of this regulation [allowing lawyers access to investigation documents], and now it is not that easy for me to bring the [limitations] back, But we have to.”

Indeed, a provision that set restrictions on lawyer access to documents in investigation files was removed by none other than the AK Party government only four and a half months ago as part of a legislative change the government had called a “reform package” on Feb. 21. According to this provision, which is now making a comeback, a prosecutor has the right to limit lawyers’ and attorneys’ perusal of the evidentiary files against a client in the investigation phase of proceedings if the prosecutor decides that client access to the files might put the future of the probe at risk. In such a case, a person who is arrested will not be able to find out about the accusations directed against him or her until a court accepts the indictment against him and a trial begins.

Bozdağ said, “We are not really bringing back something that we have undone; we are only bringing back legislation which had been in place in Turkey for many years.”

The justice minister argued that currently, a person has the right to find out if there is an investigation regarding him and her, and at what stage the investigation is, asserting that this practice harms the health of an investigation. “Now, those who have made a habit of crime keep finding out if they are being investigated or not through their lawyers. They take every [piece of evidence] in the file and then disappear with it. After that, it becomes impossible to organize a raid into say, a drug trafficking network.”

Many have said they do not find the minister’s arguments convincing. Former AK Party member and Justice Minister Murat Başesgioğlu, who is now a deputy of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said: “They are bringing back something that they abolished only three or four months ago. Now this has become extremely ordinary.” He said frequent changes simply indicate arbitrariness in the government’s decisions, saying this would damage the justice system eventually.

Ergun Ekim, a representative of the Union of Bar Associations, said: “This will bring back the old practice. People have stayed in prison for years without knowing what they are being accused of.”

CHP Mersin deputy İsa Gök asked the AK Party’s Ramazan Can to cite a concrete example of the problems associated with the change. “I don’t want to give any concrete examples,” Can said.

CHP deputy Turgut Dibek, who spoke during the commission’s session on Wednesday, said he believed the government was retracting the earlier amendment to be able to continue its witch-hunt against the people it believes are associated with Hİzmet. “It is really sad that Parliament is in this condition. It is not right to use the law as a weapon.”

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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