The visit to Turkey of Robert Spano, the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has caused much concern amongst democrats, academics and people who have suffered from the crackdown here. 

Though the ECHR stated that during his meeting with Turkish President Erdoğan, Robert Spano had stressed “the importance of the rule of law” and “the need to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression”, the aftershock of his visit still resonates.

Why is that?

First of all, Spano received an honorary degree from Istanbul University, which had layed off many academicians after the coup attempt of July 2016. 

Journalist and academic Mehmet Altan penned an open letter to Spano, maintaining that despite the rulings of the Constitutional Court and the ECtHR, it remains impossible for him to return to Istanbul university.

What is more, I spoke to associate professor of law Cemil Ozansü who was discharged four years ago from Istanbul University. Ozansü pointed to the fact that the academicians still do not know how the discharge procedure was handled: 

“This would not be possible in a state in which the rule of laws prevails. Who denounced us? On what grounds? Some of the colleagues that were discharged went to ECHR. Hence, it is not right for its President to accept an honorary degree from an institution whose dispositions regarding these layoffs are unknown.” 

In fact, according to Ozansü, these lists had been prepared prior to the coupt attempt. “When Davutoğlu was Prime Minister, a memorandum was released to establish alleged ties between certain civil servants and terrorism. It must have been in January 2016. Months before the coup attempt! It was an operation, the lists were prepared at universities. They mainly consisted of leftists, socialists and Republicans who did not comply with the new constitutional order.” 

Interestingly, President Spano did not wish to see the press at the ceremony. 

“Personally, this visit has hurt me” says Ülkü Doğanay, a professor of political sciences who was expelled from Ankara University, just because she signed the Peace Petition in 2015. “As the President of ECHR, who is to rule my application, I have doubts regarding the legitimacy of this visit.”  

Among 2,212 peace academics from many universities throughout Turkey, 406 were discharged from their jobs, more were put on trial. Each court gave different verdicts on the same accusations. 

Doğanay is amongst those who got acquitted, though the University would not have her back. Her and a few colleagues’ EctHR applications were accepted but others were denied: “This problem does not only concern 406 academics who were dismissed. It also is used as a tool to silence those who think like us.”

Note that the Inquiry Appeal Commission was established to handle the State of Emergency dismissals and it was treated as a “local court” by the ECHR. (For details: Among 108,200 appeals, only 12,200 have been accepted. Academics for Peace were not amongst them, though many were acquitted. 

Spano’s visit to Turkey raises many questions. People’s Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Mithat Sancar has written an open letter underlining the fact that the ECHR had previously ruled violations of rights with regards to the cases of former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahip Alpay, and civil activist Osman Kavala. 

While Spano visited President Erdoğan in Ankara, there were calls from human rights activists, lawyers to visit Silivri Prison. Spano also visited Mardin, a southeastern town. Başak Demirtaş, the wife of imprisoned ex co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, called on Spano to make a visit to Diyarbakır. 

But Mr. Spano preferred to visit Mardin, the hometown of Turkish ECHR judge Saadet Yüksel alongside AKP officials. AKP Mardin Women’s Group deleted a tweet with a photo and which stated “Our 23rd period MP Cüneyt Yüksel with his sister, ECHR judge Saadet Yüksel and ECHR President Spano with the Mardin Governor.” 

Why did they delete the tweet? To conceal the fact that Judge Yüksel’s brothers are affiliated with the ruling party? 

Başak Çalı, Centre for Fundamental Rights Co-Director and Professor of Law tweeted fundamental questions:

1. Was this a private, touristic trip to one of Turkey’s most beautiful sites?

2. Why did the two judges visit a school on a weekend?

3. Why did many representatives of political parties accompany the judges of the ECHR to a closed school on the weekend, if this was a private visit?

4. Under the resolution of Judicial Ethics of 2008, judges of the ECHR ‘shall exercise their function impartially, and ensure the appearance of impartiality’. Did the Turkish judge undertake a thorough ethical impact assessment undertaken prior to this situation?

5. If the Turkish judge undertook a thorough ethical impact assessment for this visit, what were the favorable reasons supporting its organization?

6. As per the resolution above, has the Turkish judge raised any doubts on the application of impartiality in this situation, and sought the advice of the President of the Court?

7. Will the President report to the Plenary Court on the application of these principles to an empty school visit, and photograph which shows the Turkish judge and the President with a large number of representatives of a political party?

Dr. Cemil Ozansu says that the ECHR seeks to maintain good relations with all countries. Still, the highlights of Spano’s visit carries symbolic meaning.