February 24, 2016

Criticism mounts as court oversteps authority to seize schools in Erzurum

An Erzurum court has ruled to seize properties and real estate belonging to four education institutions in the eastern province of Erzurum in a government-initiated move against the faith-based Gülen movement, prompting widespread outrage.

Erzurum 1st Criminal Court of Peace Judge Selim Ertem issued his ruling after agreeing with the demands of Prosecutor İsmail Karataş.

On Tuesday, police officers detained 30 people including the former mayor of the city of Erzurum, who represented the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and issued detention warrants for another five individuals. In the operation, which took place in Ankara, Çanakkale, Erzurum, İstanbul, Trabzon and Van, suspects are accused of “misconduct,” “bid rigging” and “membership in a terrorist organization.”

Officers from the Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau of the Erzurum Police Department also raided the house of a 91-year-old well-known in the area for his charitable donations. The officers decided not to detain him after being shown a doctor's report stating that he was bedridden and should not be moved. Felicity Party (SP) leader Mustafa Kamalak spoke to Today's Zaman about the incident, saying that it was “tyranny” by the government. “Tyranny will get us nowhere. We have to stick to justice,” Kamalak said.

Faruk Terzioğlu, a lawyer representing businessman B.Ç -- who is among those whose properties were raided -- told Today's Zaman on Wednesday that the operation is intended to intimidate those who are critical of the government. “What they want to do right now is not bring people who aid and abet terrorist organizations to justice but rather intimidate and repress a certain section of society both materially and morally. Operations such as these are not intended to establish peace in Turkey. They are simply supposed to intimidate businesspeople. It was a perception operation [aimed at tarnishing the image of the Hizmet movement]."

The people whose houses and officers were raided are thought to be sympathizers of the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, a grassroots initiative inspired by the ideas of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

Also speaking to Today's Zaman on Wednesday, former Erzurum deputy İsmail Köse said: “I do not accept the fact that these people [who are sympathetic to the Hizmet movement] are being labeled as members of a terrorist organization. If these education institutions were harmful, people wouldn't send their children to be educated there. People show courtesy towards those who establish these schools and work there because these education institutions are beneficial for children.”

The government has not treated those employed in the closed schools fairly, Köse said, adding: “Hopefully, the judiciary will rule in their favor. We will follow the developments in this matter with patience and sadness.”

Criminal lawyer Professor Yılmaz Yazıcıoğlu told Today's Zaman on Wendesday that the ruling should be declared null and void. “The judge of the penal court of peace overstepped his authority by making such a ruling. It constitutes misconduct because it is against the law for a court to overstep its authority. This ruling must be declared null and void. … I think the HSYK [Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors] will not remain insensitive to a grave mistake such as this,” Yazıcıoğlu said.

“The ruling also violates the constitutional right to education. The Ministry of Education can take legal action against a school authority if it is charged with misconduct but it must be done by a high criminal court,” Yazıcıoğlu added, adding that schools cannot be seized even when their authorities are charged with misconduct.

The penal courts of peace were designed and established in 2014 by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government to pursue its critics and opponents by orchestrating what many have said are sham trials in politically motivated cases. The penal courts of peace have received plenty of criticism for empowering the “judges of peace” who serve in those courts with extraordinary powers, such as the authority to issue search warrants, detentions and the seizure of property. The courts have faced allegations that they are instruments for the enforcement of the government's wishes by instigating arrests based on the headlines of pro-government newspapers.

Published on Today's Zaman, 24 February 2016, Wednesday