April 15, 2020, Mehmet Tahsin
A terrible play had a two-week run at the Turkish parliament. The speaker of parliament, the justice minister and deputies performed their roles poorly. It was ostensibly a legislative session, but the reality was something different.
After an executive presidential system was adopted in a narrowly backed 2017 referendum, the parliament speaker’s office published a handbook for legislating under the new system. In the chapter titled “How legislation works,” the process is explained as follows:
1) Submission of a bill by legislators to the parliament speaker’s office
2) Delegation of the relevant committee to discuss the bill
3) Presentation of the committee report at a session in parliament
4) Holding of a vote in parliament’s general assembly
5) Publication of the president’s approval in the Official Gazette
The new system in theory preserves legislating as a privilege of lawmakers in parliament, with the exception of presidential decrees that can be issued for certain matters.
However, the practice is different. In the new system, the power of legislating is in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, entirely bypassing parliament.
After becoming accustomed to ruling the country through government decrees during a two-year-long state of emergency following a 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan has continued this tradition in his executive presidency. And now, parliament is also part of the act.
This latest play staged at the Turkish parliament for releasing part of the country’s prison population due to the risk posed by the global coronavirus pandemic is a conspicuous example.
Let’s refresh our memories. Erdoğan’s ally, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had visited a mafia boss, Alaattin Çakıcı, in prison in May 2018 and then issued a statement calling for a general amnesty, including inmates charged with involvement in organized crime.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had expressed unease with the proposal, resulting in a short period of tense exchanges between the parties. Then, a bill submitted to parliament by the MHP for a general amnesty was sidelined.
In December, it was reported by the pro-government media that President Erdoğan had a meeting with Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül in which he gave the green light for reducing the jail sentences of inmates, excluding some charged with particular offenses. I would like to highlight that Erdoğan gave the green light.
One and a half months later, there were news reports suggesting that the Justice Ministry had made preparations for a general amnesty and that they were presented to President Erdoğan.
There was no action until the last week of March. After the global pandemic threatened the country’s overcrowded prisons, however, the issue reemerged under the cover of a coronavirus release bill.
From a column penned by a pro-government journalist on March 26, we learned that the structure of the release bill was devised during a teleconference participated in by Erdoğan, the justice minister and the AKP group deputy chairmen.
Finally, the release bill was submitted on March 31 to the speaker’s office by deputies from the AKP and the MHP.
It’s normal that a draft law is presented by deputies from two different parties, since they’re allies. What is abnormal is that the bill was brought to parliament after being drafted upon the instructions of the presidential palace.
The bill quickly found its way to the parliament’s justice committee. In the good old days, committee members had lively debates about draft laws before sending them to parliament’s general assembly. These days, alas, the bills are treated as sacred texts by AKP and MHP legislators, as they were sent from the palace. Since they constitute the majority, they are usually passed without change.
The release bill suffered the same fate, being submitted to the palace for presidential approval despite fierce criticism coming from the opposition members of parliament. Naturally, legislation prepared by the president in the beginning will be approved by the president in the end, without any doubt.
What will happen next?
The opposition will take the coronavirus release law to the Constitutional Court seeking its cancelation, as was announced by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition party, on TV a few days ago.
There’s widespread optimism that the top court will cancel the legislation. That would allow prisoners who are charged with terrorism but have not committed any violent acts, namely political prisoners, to be freed.
I find that possibility remote after what happened in parliament.
Erdoğan’s influence extends to the higher courts of the country. A majority of the 16 members of the Constitutional Court were assigned by Erdoğan or the parliament controlled by him.
Those members would not want to disappoint the president, especially in a matter related to the Gülen movement, which is accused of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup despite its strong denial of any involvement, because many of the political prisoners are alleged to be members of the movement.
Wreaking institutional vengeance on the Gülen movement is Erdoğan’s pet project.
European institutions, meanwhile, turn a blind eye to Turkey’s obvious injustices, deeming that the rule of law is intact and that the higher courts are effective domestic remedies.
There are an excess of applications on the desks of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) coming from people who were charged with membership in the Gülen movement. Some of them, journalists, as an example, have served out their sentences but still have not been released.
The ECtHR spoke out regarding the cases of jailed businessman Osman Kavala and imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş. But it’s deaf to the pleas coming from the people whose lives were ruined due to the investigations into the Gülen movement.
In this unprecedented time of the life-paralyzing pandemic, every country is preoccupied with own troubles.
Turkey’s actions will not be sanctioned. One can only hope for a loud voice from those who have the power to influence European institutions.