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Turkey

Controversy over judicial reform in Turkey

The Turkish constitutional court has ruled that parts of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s judicial reform are unconstitutional. Erdogan is angry, but it’s not the court's first ruling to go against him.

The Turkish constitutional court made worldwide headlines in April when the judges lifted the government's ban on the messaging service Twitter. Now the court has also blocked a disputed law on the judicial system that parliament had adopted in February.

The law was intended to expand the power of the justice minister over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Among other things, the panel is responsible for the appointment and removal of judges and prosecutors. Several members of the HSYK had been dismissed over the last few weeks, to be replaced with new members approved by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

The court's decision means that won't be possible anymore. The judges ruled the extended powers of the justice minister are unconstitutional. The case was brought by the largest opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP).

'Keep the courts out of politics'

Bozdag and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the ruling. "If someone wants to be involved in politics, he should leave his chamber and put the robe away and start to do politics," the newspaper Hürriyet quoted Erdogan as saying. The same paper quoted Bozdag as saying he hoped that the court "can be kept out of politics."

Hasim Kilic 
(Photo: Adem AlatanAFP/Getty Images)

Hasi Kilic, president of the constitutional court, rejects all citicism

Hasim Kilic, the president of the constitutional court, has rejected all criticism. "We only do our job within the framework of the constitution," he said in an interview with the newspaper Milliyet.

The chairman of the bar association, Metin Feyzioglu, praised the ruling in Turkish media: "That decision shows the importance of a constitutional court." He said it showed that the constitution would not allow any law to endanger the neutrality and independence of judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan wanted to 'reform' the court

The conflict between the government and the constitutional court escalated when the court struck down the Twitter ban. That showed how efficient the court is, legal scholar Lami Bertan Tokuzlu of Bilgi University in Istanbul said in an interview with DW.

"The Erdogan government has recently passed an increasing number of laws that underpin authoritarian tendencies. I don't understand why the government is surprised by the ruling of the court. These laws are obviously unconstitutional."

Instead of re-evaluating its own strategy, the government has questioned the status of the constitutional court, accusing it of political bias, Tokuzlu said. "The Turkish constitution stipulates the separation of powers. The judiciary is neither superior nor inferior to the legislative. They are all on the same level and have to respect each other."

Furthermore, Tokuzlu said, it should not be forgotten that the constitutional court was already reformed by Erdogan's conservative AKP government - by means of a referendum in 2010. "That made constitutional complaints possible. That was seen as a heroic step then, and the government was seen as human and reform-friendly," he said. It was also approved by the liberals and not just by the conservatives.

'A lesson in the matter of separation of powers'

Lami Bertan Tokuzlu

Legal expert Lami Bertan Tokuzlu wonders why the government is surprised by the recent ruling

But Tokuzlu said the court has not always been as rigorous as in its latest ruling. "There were thousands of individual human rights complaints that reached the constitutional court. Yet it has hardly addressed any of them," he said.

But now the court has realized that "the government endangers the rule of law." That has given its work new urgency, he said.

Yusuf Kanli, columnist at the online "Hürriyet Daily News" said the recent ruling was "a lesson in the separation of powers" for Erdogan, who he believes aims to be an "absolute ruler."

But for now, he said, the people again believe in democratic rule, not least because they think the judges will protect it.

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