October 30, 2015

Erdoğan the freedom predator

Abdullah Bozkurt

The unlawful government takeover of Koza İpek Holding's 22 companies, including the third-largest media outlet in Turkey, by abusing the criminal justice system is not a seizure of a bankrupt group to protect shareholders and the public at large, but rather is a blatant intervention in the mass media ahead of a crucial national election.

Koza İpek, active in energy, mining and the media, is one of the most profitable conglomerates in Turkey and the third largest contributor to the Treasury coffers in terms of corporate taxes. The company's accounts, done by PricewaterhouseCoopers, are in perfect order and impeccable, so much so that a partisan expert appointed by a loyalist prosecutor to look into the conglomerate's books had to fabricate a new charge: The immaculate accounting books are not realistic at all and as such are suspicious enough to charge the company. This is not a joke at all. Neither the prosecutor nor a judge saw any problems with this reasoning when they sought to seize the group based solely on this so-called expert's opinion.

With this latest assault on press freedoms, the right to be protected from unreasonable seizure and the right to free enterprise, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the real mastermind of these undemocratic practices that curtailed fundamental rights and suspended the rule of law in Turkey, deserves to be called a predator attacking freedoms all around.

The takeover of Koza İpek by partisan hacks and thugs, ostensibly dubbed as trustees, by violence and brute police force has been in the making for some time now. The plan was perhaps inadvertently admitted by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan during a TV interview on the night of March 6, 2014 during which he infamously called for social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube to be shut down.

In that interview, he said two things that were more troubling than just rooting out social media sites. First, he said the current judiciary was ineffective in dealing with what he called espionage and intelligence activities, the usual smokescreen in authoritarian regimes for going after critics. He was in fact alluding to what the opposition had exposed by releasing legally authorized wiretaps that revealed a huge corruption network implicating Erdoğan and his family members. The embattled and embarrassed Erdoğan said new arrangements must be made in the judiciary and promised to do so after the March 30, 2014 local elections. He said he had already taken the first step in that respect.

Right after the local elections, the Erdoğan government brought a new bill to Parliament proposing the establishment of a special court system called penal courts of peace. The bill was approved on June 16, 2014 with a majority of votes from Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the rubber stamp Parliament. These courts are not regular trial courts per se because they are led by a single judge who adjudicates matters during investigative stages such as issuing arrest warrants, conducting arraignment hearings and ordering preventive measures. The most controversial part is that they operate in a closed loop system, meaning you cannot appeal the decision of one judge of a penal court with a superior court but rather have to challenge the ruling with another penal court judge of the same rank and order.

That is why these courts have been deemed unconstitutional by most jurists including a former president of the Constitutional Court and former justice ministers. Erdoğan pursued his witch-hunt against critics and opponents using these specially authorized courts that are fully staffed by his partisans and loyalists. It was not surprising that the decision to seize Koza İpek was approved by Judge Yunus Süer of the Ankara 5th Penal Court of Peace. Almost all court decisions taken by these special courts help Erdoğan pursue his relentless persecution of his opponents in the media, the business world, civil society and even political opposition.

The second item that was mostly overlooked during that interview was Erdoğan's many complaints about the court expert system. After talking about how the defamation cases he had launched had been thwarted by the courts, Erdoğan said: “For example we are in trouble with the so-called expert system. I mean, to whom will the court send this case for an opinion? If this expert prepares a report favoring the defendant, then the whole case is over.” He then vowed to do something about it.

It appears some measures have already been taken in that respect since then because so many of the show trials led and supported by Erdoğan against his critics have used highly questionable experts. The court expert system was devised as a mechanism to assist judges in extrajudicial matters requiring knowhow and expertise. The regulation of the court expert system is completely in the hands of the Justice Ministry, which is now being led by Erdoğan loyalist Kenan İpek, who helped the president weather investigations into corruption and Syria-bound illegal arms shipments.

On paper, the experts must be highly professional people because judicial proceedings are delicate and the information submitted to the judge must be definite, certain and precise for fair judgment. The reports submitted by experts to the court are not binding, but most of the time affect proceedings. In many cases, the parties involved are not satisfied with one expert opinion and challenge the reports prepared by experts. In Koza İpek, the judge did not even allow the company's lawyers to challenge the expert report before ordering the seizure.

It turned out the expert named Şafak Ertan Çomaklı who wrote the flawed report on Koza İpek is an ardent Erdoğan fan. He has been using hateful speech, even amounting to hate crimes at times, vitriolic criticism and profanity on social media targeting Erdoğan's critics and opponents. He called government critics dogs on leashes and leeches and has bashed vulnerable groups. After the Koza İpek media takeover, Çomaklı's name emerged in the media, prompting him to make his Twitter account private in order to prevent the public from seeing his posted messages. In addition, he was convicted on fraud charges in a lower court and saved by the bell in the appeal when the statute of limitations expired due to a backlog in the superior court.

In all the other witch-hunt cases where the opponents are accused of trumped-up charges, similar fabricated reports by so-called experts have been used in the last several years. The expert reports are blatantly prejudiced against defendants, especially in an unprecedented number of criminal defamation cases launched by Erdoğan against all, including teenagers, the elderly and the disabled for writing or speaking critically. Despite the fact that some of the speeches or publications did not even mention Erdoğan at all, partisan experts went out of their way and interpreted them as being directed against the president.

This is the template of Erdoğan's master plan to suffocate Turkey of freedoms and rights. He has carefully engineered a partisan and loyal judiciary to consolidate his power. When he is asked, he simply shifts the accountability somewhere else by claiming these are all judicial proceedings conducted independently of the executive branch. No one is buying that façade anymore, and people know very well Erdoğan is the one who is pulling the strings. His inadvertent remarks from last year's interview signaled all the road markers for such a sinister plan.

Yet, whatever he does to sustain his authoritarian rule, no matter how he performs during Sunday's election and whether he engages in massive election fraud, Erdoğan will not be able to govern this vibrant, dynamic and resilient nation that has proven time and again to have limited the absolute powers of rulers, even under sultans.

Published on Today's Zaman, 30 October 2015, Friday