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Members of the Turkish judiciary are rewarded for punishing gov’t critics: report

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The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, in a report published on Wednesday, details how the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rewards officers of the court with promotions for using the power of the judiciary to silence and crack down on government critics.

Below is the full report.

Two recent appointments to the position of deputy minister at Turkey’s Justice Ministry have proven that judges and prosecutors who punish critics of the government are rewarded with promotions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week appointed Istanbul judge Akın Gürlek, who is notorious for convicting dissidents, including several senior opposition figures and lawyers, as a deputy minister of justice in a move described by many as a reward for rulings favoring Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The anatomy of a judge: Akın Gürlek

The Arrested Lawyers Initiative has compiled a list of the controversial rulings made by Gürlek against critics of Erdoğan and the AKP government who include lawyers, opposition politicians, journalists and academics.

Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, who was co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and HDP lawmaker Sırrı Süreyya Önder were convicted of spreading terrorist propaganda in a speech at a peaceful gathering by a court presided over by Gürlek. They were sentenced to four years, eight months and three years, six months in prison, respectively.

Demirtaş was a vocal critic of Erdoğan and the AKP before he was jailed. He ran in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2018 as a rival to Erdoğan and conducted his election campaign from jail for the 2018 election.

Gürlek was again on a panel of judges that handed down a prison sentence of nine years, eight months to main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) İstanbul provincial chairman Canan Kaftancıoğlu in 2019 for spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization in her social media posts.

Kaftancıoğlu played a key role in the shock victory of the CHP’s İstanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu in 2019 — the first time in 25 years that Erdoğan’s party had lost power in Turkey’s biggest city.

Prominent human rights activist and head of the Turkish Medical Union (TTB) Professor Şebnem Korur Fincancı was also among the critics of the AKP government who was given a prison sentence by a court in which Gürlek was serving. Fincancı was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison in December 2018 on charges of disseminating “terrorist propaganda.”

Fincancı is an outspoken critic of the Turkish government and frequently brings the widespread human rights violations in the country to public attention as well as calling on the government to improve the working conditions of healthcare professionals who complain about an excessive workload and violence from patients or their relatives.

Gürlek was also the presiding judge of a high criminal court in İstanbul that ruled in October 2020 for the confiscation of the property of exiled journalist Can Dündar, who is currently living in Germany, and declared him a “fugitive.”

Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet daily, had to flee Turkey in 2016 to avoid a government crackdown caused by a 2015 report in Cumhuriyet on National Intelligence Organization (MİT) trucks allegedly transporting arms to rebels in Syria. He was handed down a prison sentence of 27 years, six months in December 2020 on charges of obtaining state secrets for the purpose of espionage and supporting an armed terrorist organization without having membership in it in a trial concerning the news report, which sparked a political firestorm in Turkey.

Gürlek also came to public attention as a judge in an İstanbul court that refused to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling on opposition lawmaker Enis Berberoğlu. He was the presiding judge of İstanbul’s 14th High Criminal Court, which refused to retry CHP deputy Berberoğlu, claiming that the Constitutional Court had exceeded its authority.

Berberoğlu, also a former journalist, was sentenced to five years, 10 months in prison in 2017 for his alleged role in leaking confidential documents about the MİT trucks carrying weapons to Syria.

He was found guilty of espionage and of providing footage of the trucks to the opposition Cumhuriyet daily. Cumhuriyet published the original report on the shipment in May 2015 based on a video that allegedly came from Berberoğlu.

In September 2021 Turkey’s Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) promoted Gürlek to the position of “first-class judge” despite its previous decision not to promote judges whose verdicts on rights violations were overturned by the Constitutional Court.

Gürlek was also cruel to human rights lawyers. In March 2019 he sentenced 18 human rights lawyers to a total of 159 years on terrorism-related charges. One of the lawyers, Ebru Timtik, died on the 238th day of a hunger strike in protest of the lengthy prison sentences they received. She was demanding that their appeals be immediately considered by the Court of Cassation.

Following his appointment as a deputy justice minister last week, Gürlek was contacted by a reporter from the pro-opposition Halk TV news website who asked him, “How can a judge who challenged a Constitutional Court ruling be appointed as a deputy justice minister?” In response, Gürlek said: “This is Turkey. I did what the law required me to do. I don’t want to talk about this issue.”

Hasan Yılmaz: the prosecutor who re-arrested Osman Kavala

In yet another controversial appointment in October 2020, President Erdoğan appointed another notorious figure, Istanbul public prosecutor Hasan Yılmaz, as one of the deputy justice ministers. Like Gürlek, Yılmaz is also known for using the power of the judiciary to silence and crack down on critics of President Erdoğan and his AKP government.

Yılmaz, a former deputy chief public prosecutor in İstanbul, was appointed as a deputy justice minister only one week after he drafted a new indictment in October 2020 against businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been behind bars on politically motivated charges since 2017.

In the indictment Yılmaz demanded an aggravated life sentence for Kavala on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” through his alleged involvement in a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 as well as “political espionage” for an additional 20 years in prison.

In February 2020 the Istanbul 30th High Criminal Court acquitted Kavala and eight other defendants of charges of attempting to overthrow the state through their involvement in the 2013 nationwide Gezi Park protests. However, to prevent Kavala’s release, Yılmaz issued a detention warrant for him on new, trumped-up charges.

“The immediate re-arrest of Osman Kavala in another bogus investigation after his acquittal on trumped-up charges for the Gezi Park protests shows how Turkey’s criminal justice system is politically manipulated, with detention and prosecutions pursued at the political whim of the president,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released by the group on Feb. 20.

Yılmaz also investigated more than 200 lawyers and had them arrested on terrorism charges due to the identity of their clients.

Yılmaz is also the prosecutor who had Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel kept in pre-trial detention for one year without an indictment in İstanbul’s notorious Silivri Prison.

Yücel was formally charged with disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organization, which led to a rift between the Turkish and German governments, with Berlin using diplomatic channels to secure his release in February 2018 after he had spent one year in jail.

Erdoğan is widely criticized for taking the Turkish judiciary under his absolute control, particularly after the coup attempt in 2016, and for destroying the separation of powers. The appointment of such notorious judicial figures to posts in the Ministry of Justice dashes any hope of a fair trial when Erdoğan dissidents are prosecuted.

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