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January 28, 2013, Monday

Failure to deliver

A couple of weeks ago, I bumped into a distinguished colleague I hadn't seen in a while. Was he still optimistic about the trend in Turkey, I asked him. Yes, he replied. Turkey is prone to ups and downs, but this is what makes the country exciting for us journalists. Our job would be very boring if Turkey were like Switzerland, he quipped.

Turkey certainly offers plenty of material to write about, but beyond just commenting and reporting on what goes on, I've also been rooting for a more democratic, more inclusive Turkey. For a while, this goal appeared closer, before the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lost sight of it. The government now seems content to secure its position and promote what seems merely a modified version of the old state ideology.

Setbacks and political disputes may keep journalists busy, but Turkey's democratic shortcomings continue to inflict hardship and pain unnecessarily to many people in this country every day.

The shocking life sentence handed down on Jan. 24 to sociologist Pınar Selek is a good reminder of what is at stake when democratization is delayed and "reform" applied in a very selective way. Unfair arrests, court cases and verdicts are sadly so plentiful that keeping track of them all is all but impossible. A handful of them, such as the trial of Hrant Dink's murderers or that of Selek become weathervanes that allow outside observers to measure which way the wind is blowing.


Selek was accused, without evidence, of placing a bomb in the Egyptian bazaar on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in July 1998. The explosion, which cost the lives of seven people, took place over 14 years ago, but the sociologist's life continues to be affected by these fateful events. Tortured and detained for two years, she has also been involved in a twisted and biased legal process ever since, claiming her innocence all along. Several expert reports produced in court attributed the explosion to a gas leak, the only witness against Selek recanted his testimony obtained under duress, and she was acquitted on three different occasions. But the judicial authorities pressed on, determined to see her sentenced.

And guilty she was declared on Jan. 24, when the 12th Heavy Penal Court in İstanbul handed down a verdict of life imprisonment against Selek. The presiding judge resisted pressure from the Court of Appeal and he defended her acquittal, but he was outnumbered.

Selek, who is conducting post-doctoral work at Strasbourg University, is not "evading justice" as some news reports have suggested. Rather, justice is evading her. The unprecedented way the court decided in November 2012, in the absence of the main judge familiar with the case, to withdraw its acquittal and retry the sociologist, marked a new low for Turkey's justice system and caused international outrage.

What is it about Selek that makes her so threatening? She is a feminist, a civil society activist, who's worked hard on behalf of some of society's most vulnerable. But in a system that even attributes to lawyers their clients' alleged crimes -- as evidenced by the recent arrests of human rights defenders that have caused uproar abroad -- promoting the rights of minorities, street children or gay people presumably counts as suspicious activities.

More encouraging events are of course also taking place in Turkey: The removal of controversial Interior Minister Idris Naim Şahin is a welcome development -- although one can wonder why such a controversial figure entered the government in the first place -- and the gradual lifting of the headscarf ban will allow many women lawyers, so far excluded, to practice their profession.

But when timid steps forward in one area are replaced by new constraints in others and positive developments remain overshadowed by a systematic failure to respect due process and deliver free and fair justice, it is hard to see the overall trend as positive, at least in the short term.

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