Charges have just been dropped against Yaşar Kanbur, the last defendant in a mass trial against members of the radical leftist movement Dev-Sol that began 30 years ago during the period of emergency rule that followed the 1980 military coup. The Court of Appeals had already issued a similar ruling in favor of 21 of Kanbur’s fellow defendants in February. The court did not end its prosecution because it had finalized the case, but because the statute of limitations had expired.
Launched initially against 723 suspects in 1982 during the period of military rule when suspects were routinely tortured, the procedure went through many twists and turns over the years. Many of the defendants, who were accused of wanting to topple the regime -- or to “overthrow the constitutional order” -- spent years in prison and 21 of them were sentenced to death in 2002, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment.
A trial that lasts 30 years without ever coming to a successful completion, entire lives spent under the shadow of suspicion and imprisonment: This case, and others like it, hardly paint the Turkish judicial system in a favorable light. For the defendants who lived with the threat of a return to prison, this outcome marks the end of a legal nightmare, but several of them, including Kanbur, have expressed their frustration at not being fully exonerated.
Turkey is now confronting the poisonous legacy of the 1980 coup and of subsequent attempts to overthrow the elected government. The people who ordered the arrests of hundreds of thousands of people now find themselves under judicial scrutiny.
Holding the coup leaders to account is clearly important for Turkey as it seeks to shed the overbearing influence of the military. Yet even as the country seeks to turn a fresh page, mass arrests, lengthy detention periods and roller-coaster judicial procedures are still part of the political landscape. The heavy backlog of files in the judicial system continues in many cases to prevent a fair delivery of justice. Aside from structural problems and a shortage of judges and prosecutors, rigid laws, particularly anti-terror legislation that casts too wide a net and results in large numbers of arrests, continue to contribute to this state of affairs.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently confirmed the legitimacy of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials currently under way when it rejected, in separate rulings, complaints filed by two defendants, Tuncay Özkan and Çetin Doğan, who claimed their arrest and detention were unfair. But the cases have ballooned into procedures of vast proportions that involve numerous defendants. Indictments run into the thousands of pages. While the Strasbourg court deemed the evidence sufficient to justify detention, it also expects justice to be delivered in a timely fashion.
The arrests of thousands of people, including journalists and politicians, accused of being members of the KCK network, often on the basis of scant evidence or assumed intentions rather than actual deeds, will also test Turkey’s justice system. In recent days, the ECtHR has fined Turkey for jailing two Kurdish minors, Rıdvan Demir and Agit Taşçı, arrested in Siirt in 2009 and accused of being members of an illegal organization, for a lengthy period of pre-trial detention without taking their youth into account.
What of Pınar Selek’s endless judicial saga, which has been on the agenda for 14 years? Acquitted three times already, the well-known sociologist is still facing charges for an explosion at the Spice Bazaar in 1998 that prosecutors insist on attributing to a bomb she allegedly placed, in spite of expert evidence showing it was due to a gas leak.
One of the grievances often voiced against the military-dominated state establishment was that it viewed its citizens as potential criminals. Turkey’s civilian authorities are now largely in charge and some red lines have shifted, but the mentality that drives judges and prosecutors to protect the state ahead of the individual is still in need of an overhaul.
The legal process itself all too often amounts to a punishment meted out before the culpability of the defendant is even established. The end of the Dev-Sol trial provides a good reminder that if the country is to avoid the mistakes of the past and end up with trials that last decades, it still needs to streamline its creaky judiciary and review its legislation. Justice delayed, after all, is justice denied.