A laugh at Turkish judicial reform

Tuba Torun writes: Tahir Elçi was killed by police five years ago and, due to a range of factors, our expectations that justice will be served have all but completely shattered. As we pass the anniversary of his death, we are hearing discussions of new judicial reform in Turkey, and cannot help but laugh.

Tuba Torun

Tahir Elçi, the former head of the Bar Association of the Southeastern province Diyarbakır, was killed by police five years ago on Nov. 28. This happened while Elçi while trying to protect the historic Sheikh Matar Mosque’s unique Four-legged Minaret (Turkish: Dört Ayaklı Minare), which is has four columns at its base.  

The investigation into Elçi’s death lasted four years and three months. In the investigation files, statements exist from only three police officers as suspects, while the others were considered eyewitnesses. Despite this, Uğur Yakışır, who has been charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, has been linked to the case. This trial has been continuously trivialized and attention has been diverted away from the suspected police officers. The police officers were indicted on charges of gross negligence and face a potential two to six years in prison. Uğur Yakışır was indicted on chargers of murdering two police officers and “disrupting the country’s unity and integrity” and faces three potential aggravated life sentences. These include 20 years for the murder of Elçi with malice, 20 years for the attempted murder of police officer S.T., and five years for possessing a weapon without permit; a total of 3 aggravated life sentences and 45 years of imprisonment.

All of the attorneys who looked into the case file, even briefly, have been able to say that this is not an incident of gross negligence. The most that can be debated is whether it there was regular intent or malice. But in Turkey, if you look at all the cases in which the perpetrators are police, you can see how much effort is put into ensuring that the police receive the minimum penalty. In those cases in which individuals were killed by the police (Berkin Elvan, Dilek Doğan, Kemal Kurkut, İpek Er), the officers were either acquitted or received the least possible penalty. Another factor present in these cases is that they were prolonged for years in an effort to have the murders forgotten by the public. This a severe violation of the time frame in which legal proceedings can occur which can be considered reasonable.

Türkan Elçi, the wife of Tahir Elçi, said that she has not lost her faith in justice and the legal system despite the unlawful acts which have occurred throughout the investigation into her husband’s murder and the unreasonable amount of time that has passed since the case was opened. In an interview with İrfan Aktan, which I happened to read the morning before I went to Elçi’s commemoration service held in Diyarbakır, Türkan Elçi said, “I had full trust, despite everything […] but with the first hearing, my trust was shattered.”

The first hearing was held on Oct. 21 and brought with it an onslaught of issues: The suspects were not present in court; they were connected via SEGBİS, a sound and video information system; The fundamental principle of immediacy and directness was violated. The requests of the Elçi family’s lawyers were successively rejected; Türkan Elçi was not allowed to speak; There wan an attempt to remove the lawyers from the hearing room by police force; The trial was adjourned three times. As a result of these and additional circumstances, the Elçi family’s lawyers demanded recusal. The second hearing is scheduled to be held on March 3.   
This situation would certainly shake anyone’s confidence in a fair trial. Imagine, even in a case which has evoked such widespread sympathy among Turkish society, we still face the possibility of impunity. In Turkey, we never see justice served in a timely manner and are constantly having to call for said “justice.” Citizens of a country which claims to respect rule of law should not expect to face such circumstances. No such citizen deserves to spend so many years thinking, “Now this has happened to me, but I wonder if the perpetrator will be punished?” After your loved ones are killed, and those people whom you care about are gone, your only potential consolation becomes the expectation that justice will be served. In an environment such as this, where even the minimum sentence is considered too much, how can we continue to live without anxiety and a constant weight on our chest? How can we look forward instead of back? If this is not considered inhumane, if this is not torture, then what is? 

Lawyers, family, friends, and loved ones held a commemorative ceremony for Tahir Elçi despite all this. There could not be an open invitation due to the pandemic, but people who heard of it showed up. In total there were around 50 people, but we stood next to an army of police. The entire street was filled with police vehicles, anti-riot vehicles, and police cars of all sizes. You say to yourself, “Look now, this is a commemoration. Why would you impose this on these people on such a day?” This seems to be a clear sign of disrespect, does it not?

In the same interview that I read that morning, Türkan Elçi said that she had written and composed a song entitled “Hewar (The Cry)” for her husband. Here is a woman who has written a song, but would probably prefer to scream. Five years have passed since her husband’s death and the first trial hearing has just been held, if you can even refer to it as a trial.

This is the reason why we often laugh when “judicial reform” in Turkey is brought up. When people such as Musa Orhan, Ümitcan Uygun, Alaattin Çakıcı are free to walk around while Demirtaş, Kavala, and countless lawyers and journalists, who were only doing their jobs, are in prison, what else can we do but laugh? For 18 years, the Turkish Constitution has been amended so that the judiciary is able to be influenced by a higher authority, the independent presidency has become dependent, and people are able to influence the high courts from their political positions. When those people mention “judicial independence,” we, those who truly believe in justice, equality, freedom, law and democracy, can only laugh.
Turkey does not need illusions of judicial reform. What this country needs is real top to bottom reform. We have seen this for a long time. If those with ethical politics also saw it, they would have stood up and walked out long ago. If this continues to be the situation, then the people will soon walk out and exercise their democratic rights. We believe this more and more with each passing day.