Major overhaul in Turkish judiciary

I think we are finally making progress on the long-delayed task of overhauling our problem-laden justice system, whose rulings have failed to soothe the public conscience time and again as the cumbersome and whose slow-paced proceedings have destroyed the feeling that justice is being served adequately in the country.

It is a sad situation, unfortunately, that judges and prosecutors are very much polarized in a system designed to protect the establishment and state structures rather than the rights and liberties of private citizens. Government agencies created by military coup plotters after 1980 have long served the interests of a select few rather than the general public, as intended by the plotters themselves.

I bet you will have a hard time finding a judicial system resembling ours in continental Europe, which subscribes to the same school of civil law that we claim to subscribe to. On top of the list of contrasts comes the military justice system, which overreaches and even overrides civilian authority in administering law in this country.

Secondly, the election process of top judicial bodies, including the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State, is far from democratic and completely shuns the representation of the people through Parliament. Therefore, it naturally calls the legitimacy and accountability of these bodies into question and creates serious misgivings regarding the settlement of outstanding issues of public concern.

This peculiar system, which has been the target of harsh criticism from international bodies, including the European Union, of which we aspire to be a member one day, is gradually, but firmly, changing. The government unveiled the most comprehensive package yet on the overhaul of the judicial system last week. The proposals included in the “strategic draft document” are promising and encouraging to many.

During candid conversations with Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and his predecessor, Mehmet Ali Şahin, who assumed the role of parliament speaker last week, I got the feeling that the country has finally reached a turning point in revamping the justice system. Şahin played a key role in drafting the reform strategy starting in 2006, and now Ergin has taken the helm in drawing up the action plan to implement that strategy.

The most noteworthy change is happening in the composition of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which has been criticized for its controversial attempts to replace judges and prosecutors in what many have viewed as attempts to hamper the independence and impartiality of judges and to influence verdicts in major cases. The number of members will be increased from seven to 21, and all senior judges in the country will be able to run for a seat in the HSYK.

What is more, the decisions of the board will be open to a review process, allowing judges and prosecutors who feel cheated or claim injustice to appeal board decisions. This was one of the main points of criticism in the European Commission’s progress reports in the past. The government also agreed to yield many of its powers to the board by delegating investigation and management authority to the HSYK in order to deflect accusations of government interference.

It is certain that this new comprehensive plan, developed after consultation with the EU, will receive positive feedback from the European Commission and is destined to be cited as worthy progress in its upcoming report in the fall. Ergin underlines that the action plan, which has been formulated under 10 major categories, was approved unanimously by the interested parties, including the military and the HSYK itself. With the changes, the judicial system’s legitimacy will be boosted and its accountability and transparency will increase, he said.

The government already passed a major reform before the summer recess, removing the authority of military courts to try civilians and allowing civilian prosecutors to charge officers if they are suspected of being involved in drug trafficking, organized crime or a plot to oust democratically elected government of Turkey. Now the Justice Ministry is making additional changes to the military justice system by having all military courts established outside the perimeter of restricted military zones, giving free access to those courts as well.

The plan also attacks the root problem of human resources in the justice system. It galvanizes law faculties to produce greater numbers of well-educated law professionals and extends the years required to obtain a law degree from four to five. All international legal documents and court verdicts that Turkey is obliged to execute will be translated into Turkish and made available to legal professionals electronically.

No doubt, this major overhaul will not come cheap, and Ergin is confident that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government will not hold back from spending money to achieve this crucial national goal.

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