Talking points for Turkish president at PACE

Turkish President Abdullah Gül will be delivering what many, including the author of this column, hopes will be a landmark speech during the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the largest and most important European watchdog overseeing human rights, rule of law and democracy in the continent, next Tuesday. He will be responding to questions raised by deputies from 47 nations. Gül is no stranger to this organization, which he served for 10 years from 1991 to 2001 as member of various PACE committees and earned the title of honorary member of this prestigious institution.

The last time he made a speech was in 2007 during the fall session of PACE, right after he was elected president after a political deadlock and constitutional crisis in his country that had triggered snap elections that resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). In 2003 he had addressed PACE deputies as the prime minister of Turkey and then continued to represent Turkey in the Committee of Ministers’ meetings as the Turkish foreign minister until 2007.

Expectations regarding his upcoming speech on Jan. 25 are understandably higher this time as the president of the assembly is now Turkish deputy Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Turkey assumed the rotating presidency of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s decision-making body. Though Turkey has made considerable progress in the last decade to align itself with the values represented by the Council of Europe on fundamental human rights, rule of law and democracy, it still has many shortcomings that need to be addressed quickly. For Mr. Gül, the issues raised by the Council of Europe strike home dearly as his political career has been interrupted repeatedly by the shortcomings of the Turkish judicial system.

He has to remember that Turkey is still under probation under the so-called post-monitoring dialogue mechanism established by the Council of Europe after 2004. Last year PACE appointed French deputy Josette Durrieu to write a report on the progress Turkey has made in implementing reform recommendations made by the Council of Europe. She paid a fact-finding mission to Turkey earlier this month and talked to officials, representatives from NGOs, political parties and the media to get a feel of direction the country is headed in. The full report is not ready yet but she hinted about what would be coming, stressing that the reforms in Turkey will be closely monitored.

While the PACE rapporteur for the post-monitoring dialogue with Turkey praised the real progress made so far, she noted there are still problems that need to be dealt with. “There are still major problems with regard to the length of detention on remand and court proceedings, the functioning of the judicial system, freedom of expression and the execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as all problems relating to national minorities and to their use of their language,” Durrieu said.

Turkey was under a monitoring mechanism from 1996 to 2004 when PACE closed the monitoring chapter on the condition that Turkey makes progress on the 12 listed issues. One was the major reform of the 1982 military-era Constitution with the help of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Turkey has made some changes to the Constitution since 2004, the last being the major changes to 26 articles approved last year in the public referendum. The changes were endorsed by the Venice Commission, which was later involved in examining the draft bills in line with the constitutional amendments. The first opinion issued in this respect covered the reform of the judicial council called the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and it was positive. The complete overhaul of the Constitution will probably be on the agenda after general elections this summer.

With respect to elections, PACE finds that the 10 percent national threshold for parties to enter Parliament is excessive and should be lowered. This has not happened yet and there is no sign that it will happen anytime soon. As for the access to voting for Turkish citizens living abroad, this has not been completed yet either. There has been little progress on local government reform and the Turkish capital still exerts considerable power over provinces with centralized governance. Again the right to conscientious objection against mandatory military service has not been established in the new legislative changes being drafted by the government.

On a positive note, the ombudsman was approved in the public referendum last year and is now part of the Turkish Constitution. The government is working on drafting a bill to make the institution of ombudsman operational soon. Turkey has also signed some of the conventions of the Council of Europe that it had been delaying for some time now. It has revised the penal code to better reflect Council of Europe values and has brought harsher penalties for crimes against women and children. Turkey has also taken positive steps to improve the situation of non-Muslim communities and launched a “unity project” to address outstanding issues in regard to ethnic Kurds.

Most importantly, the Turkish president will have difficulty in explaining why there are so many cases brought against reporters and media professionals in Turkey. It is unfortunate, but we are under constant pressure from overreaching and zealous prosecutors not to publish stories that might serve the public interest and inform people of what is going on, such as the Ergenekon case, which is the trial of the century on a military coup attempt. The training of judges and prosecutors with the help of the Council of Europe was one of the benchmarks mentioned in the conditional release of Turkey from the monitoring mechanism. But the programs and seminars held so far have simply failed to change the mindset of judges, especially those in higher judicial bodies. They are still acting with the desire to protect the so-called state interest rather than protecting citizens against arbitrary state practices.

In this respect, the complete overhaul of the judiciary and new media laws that we are hearing about these days are urgently needed to expand the freedom of speech in Turkey. If that happens, Turkey, the number one country in the number of cases and the number two in terms of judgments against it at the European Court of Human Rights, will be finally out of the woods.

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