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Erdogan briefs EU on ‘rule of judiciary’ danger

During a trip to Brussels, Erdogan tells EU leaders about Gulenist activities in the judiciary, where the community wields huge influence, and explains his vision for Syria.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy as he is welcomed ahead of a meeting at the EU council headquarters in Brussels January 21, 2014.      REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM  - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX17NNJ

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Brussels this week for a visit of critical importance for Turkey-EU relations. I was among the journalists who covered the visit, reporting for Milliyet and taking notes for Al-Monitor. I had the opportunity to talk to Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both en route from Ankara to Brussels and on the way back.

Erdogan held important talks with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Manuel Barroso and European parliament Speaker Martin Schulz. In just one day, he attended three important meetings, two news briefings and two conferences. He conveyed striking messages to his interlocutors concerning the Dec. 17 anti-corruption operation and the “parallel state” — the term he uses to describe Gulenists acting autonomously within the state. In his meeting with Barroso, which the EU official described as a “sincere” conversation, Erdogan talked about controversial rulings by the Fethullah Gulen-controlled judiciary. In my opinion, though, the Erdogan government mishandled the misdeeds of Gulenist prosecutors and judges in the past, and Turkey is now paying the price of those mistakes.

The meetings in Brussels focused on Turkey’s EU membership negotiations and bilateral ties, but the Dec. 17 operation was also on the agenda. Erdogan conveyed striking messages about the operation, the parallel state within the state and the measures to be taken against it. Here are highlights from the remarks Erdogan made to journalists on the return flight:

  • High-profile cases: There is a parallel structure within the state. Our concerns on the issue are not new. We have had concerns for two years, but we preserved our good will so as not to attract criticism over the independence of the judiciary. The current stage demonstrates that our good will has been abused.
  • Equality for all: We are against any religious group gaining the upper hand within the state in Turkey by exploiting religious beliefs. We are striving for a system in which everyone is equal before the law and the state, regardless of their religion, language, ethnicity and allegiances.
  • No deviation from the referendum spirit: In all the crises we have been through so far, we chose the path of democratization. The 2010 referendum, too, was a democratization drive. Today we stand at the same point where we stood at the 2010 referendum. Yet, an arrangement that aimed to ensure a pluralist judiciary — something we place importance on — was scrapped by the Constitutional Court at the time.
  • Impartial judiciary: Turkey has expended great efforts in the name of judicial independence and carried out reforms that the EU, too, has welcomed. Yet, Turkey has another important threshold to pass — a judiciary that would be fully independent. That’s the objective of the current steps. We have to move in the direction of the rule of law and not the rule of the judiciary.
  • Confidence erosion: Some high-profile trials in recent years have irked the public, both in terms of long detention periods and the way in which the trials were conducted. There is criticism that the police and the judiciary worked too closely, almost as partners, and that the investigations proceeded not with the orders and under the control of the judiciary, but fully under the police’s initiative. We are taking this into consideration.
  • Parallel judiciary: There is a parallel state within the judiciary as well as within the police. Their purpose is not to ensure justice, but to expel certain entities out of the system or to punish them. They charge any entity they like in the way they like, and when it comes to determining the authenticity of [incriminating] documents, they are capable of securing the outcome they like. As in the case of the Dec. 17 operation, they instantly create the impression of guilt, moving under the pretext of corruption, using evidence obtained through dubious means and slighting the presumption of innocence. The recent atmosphere at EU quarters had suggested they had doubts over the legal arrangements on the judiciary. We learned that top EU officials conveyed to Erdogan their concerns over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and the legal structure of the judiciary. Erdogan, for his part, gave assurances that 70% of the EU’s concerns had been addressed and the rest would be addressed in the coming days. Barroso and Rompuy expressed to Erdogan their satisfaction on the issue.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan held two joint news conferences with EU officials. The conferences were similarly interesting in terms of reflecting both the atmosphere of the talks and the EU attitude. Here are the messages Erdogan conveyed at those news conferences:

  • The problem is about an impartial judiciary: Democratic countries have no problem with the separation of powers. They show utmost care to and believe in the separation of powers. There is no problem on the rule of law, either. [But] serious problems would emerge if one deviated from impartiality in the name of judicial independence. It is the legislature’s duty to set certain norms. If [the judiciary] becomes unaccountable, slighting the legislature and the executive, that country would be [governed by] a “rule of the judiciary” rather than a democratic system. We are in favor of a democratic country. There is no power above the will of the people, which is manifested in parliament. And parliament is responsible for [legislative] arrangements. We’d better communicate not through the media, but through bilateral meetings with ministers.
  • EU membership negotiations: The 23rd and 24th chapters [in the EU membership negotiations] are next in line, the energy and security chapters. The related steps will follow one after another. We are happy to see that a common will exists.
  • No investigation ministry: [In response to a question on whether investigations will be subordinated to the justice minister,] Setting up an investigation ministry is out of the question. Problems in communication lead to disinformation. No one hesitates on the separation of powers. The powers cannot interfere in each other’s affairs. Otherwise, that would not be a democratic country. The duty of the legislature is obvious. So is the duty of the judiciary. The judiciary cannot overstep its working realm. Certain interest groups may be annoyed and resort to malice and intrigues. There have been some adverse attempts over our country.
  • Common interests: We have made and continue to make sincere efforts to advance relations with the European Union. We have strived to fulfill all of Turkey’s responsibilities and obligations. But despite all our sincere efforts, our EU process stagnated for three and a half years. The recent developments point to a revival of ties with the EU. We are happy with that.

No democrat could ask ‘What will happen if Assad goes?’

Another major topic during the trip was the photographs exposing the brutality of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which hit the media on the same day.

Erdogan referred to the pictures at a rally he held as soon as he arrived in Brussels, calling on the West to unite on the Syrian issue. During the news briefing at the European Council, Erdogan said he was fed up with the question of “What will happen if Assad goes?” He went on to say that, “No democrat would ask this question in the face of such brutality. Could there be anyone worse than Assad?” Stressing that the Syrian turmoil had seriously troubled Turkey, which shares a 911-kilometer [566-mile] border with Syria, he added: “The images broadcast on television, the summary of 55,000 photographs, have demonstrated the scale of that human savagery, that bloodshed, that genocide, seriously irking us as people in responsible posts.”

Underscoring the importance of the Geneva II conference, Erdogan said: “I would like to remind people once again from Brussels that it is high time for humankind to act and, without wasting a moment, take the necessary steps in the face of these developments in Syria.”

Recalling that Turkey is sheltering 700,000 refugees, he said: “For us, this is a humanitarian duty. We have spent more than $2 billion so far and we have no intention to stop [spending]. Sadly, the assistance we have received from the international community so far is about $130 million. It is significant in terms of illustrating how much people care.”

Erdogan voiced hope that, contrary to expectations, Geneva II would produce positive results and said he expected the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to act more resolutely and coherently.

We discussed the Syrian issue also with Foreign Minister Davutoglu, who suggested that the photographs released by Anatolia News Agency had greatly influenced the psychological climate. “It’s impossible to remain unmoved after seeing those photographs and then to remain silent after being touched. There is not only a crime against humanity there, but also a legal situation,” he said. The minister stressed that taking Assad to the International Criminal Court for war crimes should be “a must and not a possibility.” Davutoglu added that the pictures would have an impact on the Geneva II talks. “I hope that those photographs will serve as yet another alert to those who still believe that Assad and his regime could stabilize Syria and gain the Syrian people’s approval and are still conducting diplomacy in this direction,” he said.

In short, it was a 24-hour trip without a single moment of letting up.

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