How Turkey’s courts turned on Erdogan’s foes

ISTANBUL – It took 16 judges to convict Kurdish politicians Gultan Kisanak and Sebahat Tuncel of belonging to a terrorist organization 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…

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