Judicial reform, ECtHR and Turkey

By coincidence or great design, judicial reform was one of the key issues in the speeches of all three presidents from Eastern Europe who came to Strasbourg last week to deliver speeches and respond to questions raised by deputies in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Turkish President Abdullah Gül talked about ongoing reforms to raise the country’s democratic and legal standards, while admitting shortcomings and vowed to do more. Just a day before, his foreign minister, who represented Turkey as the chairperson of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, was grilled in the assembly with questions often related to the judicial problems in Turkey.

Serbian President Boris Tadic emphasized that judicial reform was a key issue in Serbia. “A strong independent judiciary is vital for the rule of law,” he said. Romanian President Traian Basescu reaffirmed his commitment to continue judicial reforms, with a view to reducing the number of applications lodged with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

It all made more sense to me when I realized that cases originating from these three countries made up almost a quarter of the applications currently pending before the ECtHR. The presidents were simply ashamed to face tough questions from delegates in the assembly while representing countries with notorious track records of human rights violations as confirmed by the staggering cases landing in the Strasbourg-based court.

I felt ashamed as well when I heard Jean-Paul Costa, the president of the court, naming the worst performers in last year’s tally on Thursday in the conference hall of the court building located just across the Palais de l’Europe where the Council of Europe is located. Once again, my country topped the chart in scoring the most violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2010, just like it did a year before that. It was beaten by Russia and came in second in the number of cases that are sent to the rights court.

The data from the court show that 18.55 percent of all violations for 2010 originated from Turkey, corresponding to a total of 278 violations. Given the notoriously slow-moving wheels of justice in Turkey, it was no surprise to learn that the number one leading cause in these cases stemmed from violations of Article 6, which concerns the right to a fair trial and the reasonable period for court proceedings. In most rulings, the court found that Turkey was in breach of this article, saying lengthy trials violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Don’t we all know that in Turkey? Just recently the time lapses on the long-running trials and appeal processes and, as a result, the release of vicious murderers back onto the street triggered a huge outcry from the public, forcing the government to adopt new changes. The new bill, debated last week in Parliament, would bring more manpower to high judicial bodies and increase the number of chambers that deal with the overload of cases.

What is more, the long-awaited regional appeals courts across Turkey would finally be up and running, leaving only landmark cases to the Supreme Court of Appeals for a uniform interpretation of the law. On top of that, when the individual right to file with the Constitutional Court kicks in as mandated by constitutional amendments adopted last year in a referendum, we will hopefully see less and less cases ending in the Strasbourg court.

These and possible further judicial reforms are urgently needed in Turkey. Judging from the way Turkish cases increase in Strasbourg, one could imagine the sky would be limit if no measures were taken at the domestic level. In 2009, Turkey had 4,474 applications in the court, while the number was 3,706 for 2008 and 2,828 for 2007. This number jumped to 5,821 in 2010.

If it was any relief, court officials told us, Turkey had performed much better when compared to other countries when factoring the population figures in. In that sense, Turkey left behind 22 member states of the Council of Europe with a 0.80 average rate that calculates the number of applications per 10,000 inhabitants.

Unfortunately the growing number of cases is not the only problem Turkey has been facing in Strasbourg. In a resolution adopted last week by PACE, Turkey was named among nine leading member states when it comes to failing to implement judgments of the ECtHR. Citing “major systemic deficiencies” which are causing repeated violations of the convention, PACE said structural problems in these countries were causing “extremely worrying delays” in implementing court judgments.

The report underlined that Turkey has around 1,600 cases pending before the Committee of Ministers, representing 16.5 percent of the committee’s case load. It said the most long-standing ones are caused by the failure to re-open proceedings; repeated imprisonment for conscientious objection; freedom of expression; excessive length of detention on remand; actions of security forces; and issues concerning Cyprus.

The resolution urged Turkey, presently chairing the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, “to lead by example and take urgent and decisive action to abide by Strasbourg Court judgments.” The rapporteur for the report underlined that that there is an urgent need to overhaul the system, in which Turkish courts are heavily overburdened, understaffed and under-resourced, a problem admitted by Turkish officials during the rapporteur’s visit to Ankara earlier this month.

In order to push Turkey to act on these problems, the PACE resolution recommended setting up a structure in the Turkish Parliament to permit the country’s legislative organ to push forward and monitor developments in this area in a more rigorous manner. This may be the best solution for Turkey — a watchdog committee, possibly composed of the members of the Turkish Parliament Human Rights Inquiry Committee, whose mandate should include undertaking legislative initiatives as well as monitoring effective implementation of the convention rules and ECtHR judgments.

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