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Can Turkey correct human rights record with new justice reform strategy?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just announced a comprehensive judicial reform program, but will it be enough to solve the country's deepening human rights problems?
The Justice Palace is seen in Ankara, Turkey November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC154CA58B10

The Turkish Ministry of Justice released its "Judicial Reform Strategy" document on May 30. Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul said the report took a full year to prepare and that over 20,000 people were consulted. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that the reform strategy puts Turkey on track for compliance with the EU accession process. Yet the EU Commission's annual progress report for Turkey this year, published May 29, contained its harshest criticism of Turkey's human rights record yet.

Does the Judicial Reform Strategy have the potential to change the course of Turkey's human rights record? Can it be read as a sign of a shift in Turkey from authoritarianism to democracy? Does it mean Turkey is moving closer toward Europe or away from it?

While introducing the strategy document on May 30, Erdogan said, “Though the promises made to us [by the EU] are not kept, we express our commitment to the process of full accession to the EU with this reform document.”

The strategy promises reform across vast areas of the judicial sector, stating that "a clear and measurable action plan" will be prepared, in addition to the establishment of "a monitoring and evaluation board" within three months of publication. The proposed regulations outlined in the document have the potential to contribute to improved human rights and rule of law. Such measures include:

  • Complying with the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

  • Reviewing and making necessary changes to the "methods of blocking access to the internet."

  • Forming "a new domestic legal mechanism for examining applications for violations of the right to trial within a reasonable time."

  • Organizing "training courses [for members of the judiciary] on human rights, mainly freedom of expression and the press."

  • Analyzing "the legislation on and practice of freedom of expression, and [introducing] provisions that further expand the rights and freedoms of individuals."

  • Regulating "provisions regarding the maximum duration of imprisonment."

  • Not relocating judges and prosecutors against their will.

  • ​Relocating courts and public prosecution offices to separate offices.

The strategy also stated the judiciary's intent to establish "special courts" in the fields of environment, construction and energy; to introduce an entrance exam for attorneys; and to increase education in law faculties to five years.

The document elicited mixed reactions in Turkey.

Eren Keskin, the co-chair of the Turkish Human Rights Association, stated that when she first heard the document announced by President Erdogan, she thought she was in "wonderland,” since, as Erdogan announced the reforms, the government was facing ongoing allegations of torture. Keskin has had 143 different legal cases brought against her for her statements and articles.

Some chairs of Turkey's bar associations were unimpressed by the report. Ozkan Yucel, chair of the Izmir Bar Association, tweeted, “The judicial reform does not happen by writing a strategy document. It happens by implementing the law.”

Metin Feyzioglu, chair of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, said, “I see it as the road map of Turkey alliance,” adding that, “in no step were we excluded, we worked as the original component” of the process.

Apparently, the Union of Turkish Bar Associations somehow influenced the reports and its stipulations, like its promise to issue lawyers Green Passports, which are issued to certain government employees for visa-free travel.

The Justice Reform Strategy is a comprehensive document promising serious reform. The Ministry of Justice clearly spent a lot of time and energy preparing it. In this sense, it can be said that there is a strong will behind the document.

However, something fundamental is lacking in this document: At no point does it acknowledge Turkey's serious human rights problems. Every step toward reform is referred to as a continuation of alleged positive developments.

For example, the strategy document refers to problems related to freedom of expression as follows: “In the last sixteen years, important steps have been taken toward promoting freedom expression and media in Turkey." And torture: “There are no claims of past systematic torture or ill treatment.”

This core deficiency gives rise to doubts that the document will have any serious effects on the ground or create real change in Turkey.

When reading the European Commission's progress report on Turkey, one encounters a different reality. “Allegations of torture and ill treatment remain a serious concern," the report reads. "The handling of complaints of torture and ill treatment is also reported to be ineffective, and allegedly entails a risk of reprisal."

The European report states that in terms of freedom of expression, "serious backsliding continued." It continues that "the high number of arrests of journalists — over 160 journalists remain in prison — is of very serious concern."

Questions remain: Can a country solve its problems without first acknowledging them? If we accept, as Keskin suggests, that we live in a wonderland, then how can we change our reality?