October 8, 2014

EU report criticizes Turkey over judicial independence and press freedoms

The European Union has strongly criticized the way the Turkish government handled allegations of corruption in December 2013, expressing concerns about the independence of the judiciary and increased pressure on the media.

In its annual progress report released on Wednesday, the EU said “the response of the government following allegations of corruption in December 2013 has given rise to serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers.”

“The widespread reassignments and dismissals of police officers, judges and prosecutors, despite the government's claim that these were not linked to the anti-corruption case, have impacted on the effective functioning of the relevant institutions, and raise questions as to the way procedures were used to formalize these,” the report added.

The EU underlined that “it is crucial that the investigations into corruption allegations are properly conducted in full transparency and the operational capabilities of the judiciary and the police are assured.”

The EU also did not find the government‘s response to the corruption investigations calling them a “judicial coup” staged by the members of the Hizmet movement to be credible. Rather, the report described it as “interfering of the executive into the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary” and noted that this has “raised serious concerns.” The Hizmet movement is a civil society movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

“This led to further polarisation of the political climate,” the report warned.

On the corruption investigations, the EU said “the handling of these allegations of corruption raised serious concerns that allegations of wrongdoing would not be addressed in a non-discriminatory, transparent and impartial manner.”

It said, “Prosecutors involved in the December 2013 anti-corruption investigations were reassigned or removed. The HSYK launched disciplinary and criminal investigations against a number of them. A large number of police officers were removed, reassigned, or even detained.”

The EU further took note of the massive reshuffle in the civil service after the corruption investigation was exposed that incriminated then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and several close associates.

“There was significant concern that removals and re-assignments of civil servants would threaten the efficiency of public administration and further politicise it,” the report stated.

Press freedom worries

The report also addressed the growing woes related to press freedom in Turkey, a country that was described as “a strategic partner for the EU,” recalling government attempts to ban access to social media sites including YouTube and Twitter that were later overturned by the Constitutional Court.

It said pressure on the press in Turkey leads to a widespread self-censorship, reflecting a restrictive approach to freedom of expression.

The EU took note of legislation further limiting freedom of expression, including on the Internet. It said “the effective exercise of this freedom, and press freedom, was restricted in practice.”

It stated that website bans of disproportionate scope and duration continued in Turkey. “In August, it was reported that more than 50,000 sites were not accessible in Turkey, only 6,000 of which had been banned by court order,” the report noted.

“Intimidating statements by politicians and cases launched against critical journalists, combined with the ownership structure of the media sector, led to widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists, as well as the sacking of journalists,” the report explained.

It also said the exercise of freedom of assembly remains limited.

“Turkish legislation and its implementation concerning the right to assembly and intervention by law enforcement officers will need to be brought in line with European standards,” the report recommended.

The EU repeated its earlier suggestion of engaging in a dialogue across the political spectrum and society, stressing that this should be a priority for Turkey.

It also emphasized the importance of reinvigorating the rule of law reform efforts, paying particular attention to the respect of fundamental rights in law and in practice.

Stressing that the EU should remain an important anchor for Turkey's economic and political reforms, the report stated that it is in the interests of both Turkey and the EU that the opening benchmarks for Chapter 23 of the EU acquis on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security are defined as soon as possible, leading to the opening of negotiations on these two chapters.

“Turkey can accelerate the pace of negotiations by advancing in the fulfillment of the benchmarks, meeting the requirements of the negotiating framework and by respecting its contractual obligations towards the EU. This could provide a significant boost to the negotiation process,” it explained.

The EU pointed out that there have been very serious developments in the region, in particular in Syria and Iraq, and said that makes cooperation on foreign policy issues even more crucial.

“Turkey's strategic location also underlines the importance of further cooperation in the areas of migration policy and energy security. The value of such cooperation is even clearer in light of the considerable challenges posed by recent developments in our joint neighborhood, including the Ukraine crisis,” the report highlighted.

It said “active and credible accession negotiations provide the most suitable framework for exploiting the full potential of EU-Turkey relations,” ruling out any alternative procedures with Turkey. It described the accession process as an important tool to promote “EU-related reforms” as well as providing “an important basis for intensifying dialogue on foreign policy and security issues and for strengthening economic competitiveness and trade opportunities.

“It [accession talks] also helps increase cooperation in the field of energy and on justice and home affairs, including visa/migration policy/readmission,” the EU added.

The EU emphasized that “accession negotiations need to regain momentum, respecting the EU's commitments and the established conditionality.”

Parliamentary oversight role curbed

The EU also criticized the wide scope of parliamentary immunity in relation to the corruption charges and said that the parliamentary investigation committee set up in May to probe the charges leveled against former ministers was hampered by the obstructionist tactics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). It noted that nine lawmakers had resigned from the AK party in protest of the government's handling of the corruption allegations and the closing of dershanes, private preparatory schools for nationally administered exams.

It also noted that “Parliament's ability to perform its key functions of law-making and oversight of the executive were hampered by a persistent lack of dialogue and a lack of a will to compromise among political parties.”

“The pattern of insufficient preparation and consultation before adopting key legislation continued. Government-and AKP-sponsored legislation amending laws on the internet, the judiciary, the closure of Dershanes and on the National Intelligence Service were adopted without proper parliamentary debate or adequate consultation of stakeholders and civil society,” the report added.

Stressing that the work of Parliament is not fully aligned with European standards, the EU said: “An inclusive and consultative approach to law-making remains the exception rather than the rule. The transparency of the legislative process and consultations with all relevant stakeholders needs to become a regular practice. Political polarization and a lack of readiness on the part of the government and opposition to work towards consensus on key reforms continued to affect the functioning of parliament.”

Meddling in the judiciary

The strongest criticism leveled against Turkey was on government interference in the judiciary. Citing the rushed amendments reshaping the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the subsequent dismissal of staff and numerous reassignments of judges and prosecutors, the EU said it has “serious concerns over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and the separation of powers.”

It hailed the Turkish Constitutional Court decision that found a number of provisions in the HSYK legislation to be unconstitutional, but lamented that the decision of the court had no retroactive effect.

“As a result, many members of staff laid off were not re-hired and newly appointed staff remained in place,” the report noted.

Praising the court's decisions on individual applications such as the bans to access to YouTube and Twitter, as well as the case related to the murder of journalist Hrant Dink, the EU emphasized that “these decisions showed the importance of the individual application procedure introduced with the 2010 constitutional amendments.”

“These decisions highlighted the resilience of the Turkish constitutional system,” it underlined.

The EU is also worried by the frequent changes to the justice system made with no proper stakeholder consultation. It said such a practice risks further reducing “the efficiency of the Turkish criminal system.” Citing the rushed Law on the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) which was adopted in April, the EU criticized this law that allows wiretappings and surveillance to be conducted by Turkish intelligence services without judicial oversight, which it said goes against European standards.

Pressure on Bank Asya criticized

On economic progress, the EU was critical of that no progress was made in the area of public procurement. “Although institutions and administrative capacity are in place, public procurement policy coordination and possible external influence on public tenders are issues of concern,” it said, adding to that, “Turkey needs to repeal derogations and restrictive elements that are not in line with the acquis.”

On financial services, the report drew attention to political pressure on Bank Asya, the largest Islamic lender in Turkey, which became the target of a government-endorsed smear campaign after the corruption investigation implicating senior officials was revealed in December. Some of the shareholders of the bank were seen as affiliated with the Hizmet movement. Erdoğan has accused Gülen of orchestrating the corruption probe. Gülen strongly denied the allegations and the government has failed to present any evidence linking him to the graft probe.

“As part of the government's response to the December 2013 corruption allegations, an extensive reshuffling of the regulator's senior management took place,” the EU said, in reference to the banking watchdog agency, the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK).

“Perceptions of politically motivated decisions increased,” the EU said.

The report also mentioned concerns about the independence of the central bank, which it said “have intensified” within a year.

The EU also pointed to undue political influence on other regulatory bodies. It cited the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), which oversees audio and visual broadcasting companies and the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), the agency responsible for carrying out legal wiretaps and overseeing the Internet.

The report urged changes to the election procedure for members of the RTÜK and TİB to “minimize the risk of political pressure and improve the perception of independence.”

On social policy and employment, the report noted that “anti-discrimination, social inclusion and social protection policies and practices need to be improved.”

Erdoğan had unfair campaign advantage

With regard to Turkey's August presidential election, the report quoted the findings of the joint international observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which noted concerns over Erdoğan's use of his official position as prime minister while a presidential candidate, as well as biased media coverage gave him a distinct advantage over other candidates.

“Overall, the presidential elections took place in an orderly fashion, but the campaign period raised concerns over the misuse of state resources to the benefit of the Prime Minister and over insufficient impartiality in media coverage,” the EU said, urging the government to address shortcomings in the political funding rules relating to, inter alia, prohibited funding sources, donation ceilings and obligations for candidates to disclose their assets and submit specified financial information during a political campaign.

On the settlement process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the report welcomed the continuation of the process, despite sporadic tensions in the Southeast.

“The law on eliminating terrorism and strengthening social integration provides a stronger legal foundation for the settlement talks,” it said.

Published on Cihan, 08 October 2014, Tuesday