Turkey’s War on Rule of Law: One Year On
On the morning of December 17, 2013, Istanbul police launched a massive anti-corruption operation. They detained 52 people, including the sons of three ministers, several bureaucrats, and some of Turkey’s most prominent businessmen. Within a week, on December 25, a second, even larger, probe was unveiled. This was a scandal of historic proportions, implicating the upper crust of Turkey’s ruling elite dating back to 2012. The crimes included gold smuggling and money laundering that spanned Turkey, Iran, Dubai, and China, totaling some €87 billion (appx. $108 billion) in illicit transactions.
One year later, it is clear that the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has managed to stifle the probes through mass firings, the near-destruction of the rule of law, manipulation of the parliamentary process, and blocking the free flow of information. The AKP clampdown raises troubling questions about Turkey’s future as a democracy and a NATO ally, as well as its faltering candidacy for the EU.
At the time, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that a network of individuals had been plotting to overthrow his government. He was referring to the Gulen movement, headed by the AKP’s one-time ally, the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan denounced what he called the Gulenists’ “parallel structure” to the Turkish state, and promptly deemed all police officers, prosecutors and investigators involved in the case as agents of the exiled cleric.
The AKP-government began to fire and re-assign Turkish policemen that were involved in the graft investigations. Within two months, the number had reached thousands. Key suspects of the probes were released from prison by the first week of March.
The AKP also abused its power to both reshuffle and restructure the Turkish judiciary. Between December 2013 and January 2014, the newly appointed chief prosecutor of Istanbul fired all of the prosecutors who had been involved in the corruption investigation. One prosecutor said that his arrest orders for key corruption suspects were never carried out and his files were confiscated. Meanwhile, nearly 100 prosecutors and judges were removed from their posts. The newly appointed prosecutors were asked to revise the original indictments to reflect the view of the AKP government, and by October, every last case in the probe was officially dropped.
The AKP government in January also introduced a proposal for structural changes to Turkey's top judiciary council, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (known by its Turkish acronym HSYK), which appoints the country’s judges and prosecutors. The bill called for the politically appointed justice minister to replace members of the HSYK, effectively subordinating the judiciary to the executive branch. The bill passed in mid-February but was partially annulled by the Constitutional Court two months later. However, in October the AKP pushed back by promoting a list of its own candidates for the body’s new round of elections. The candidates won 8 out of the 10 seats available.