Constitutional Court decision to release Alpay and Altan must serve as precedent


On Thursday, Turkey’s Constitutional Court has issued a landmark ruling that could lay the ground for the release of journalists jailed in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup.

At issue were individual applications to the Court by Şahin Alpay, Mehmet Altan and Turhan Günay.

Both Altan and Alpay have been in prison for more than a year, accused of “links to terrorist groups” and “attempting to overthrow the government,” charges they have denied.

Turhan Günay, literary editor of the daily Cumhuriyet, was released last year, after 9 months in prison.

The Constitutional Court not only decided that Alpay and Altan should be released; but the rights of all three had been violated.

We have not seen the detailed ruling yet but Veysel Ok, the lawyer who appealed to the Constitutional Court on behalf of Şahin Alpay, has already pointed out that theirs was the first application of its kind since the failed coup. Mr. Ok expects the ruling to set a precedent for other journalists’ trials.

That is welcome news, but a little too early to be confident about the outcome. There is no guarantee that the reasoned decision would pave the way for protection of freedom of expression and release of all journalists in Turkey.

Precedent as a legal principle is only reliable in countries where an independent judiciary would comply with the rule of law.

Lawyer and journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who took Ahmet and Mehmet Altan brothers’ cases to the Constitutional Court, as well as to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), was also optimistic about Thursday’s decision serving as a precedent. However, he warned that this would only happen if there was no political interference.

Based on previous experience, there is every reason to be cautious and sceptical.

There have been thousands of cases waiting to be considered by the highest court since Turkey’s failed coup in July 2016. Until today’s ruling, the Constitutional Court had not heard or resolved any of these cases.

There have been numerous calls for the Court to address these applications to provide effective access to justice. By delaying or blocking access to justice, Turkey was seen to be breaching Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights and not honouring constitutional and international commitments.

Serious concern over violations of international law and fair trial rights in Turkey is not limited to journalists in jail.

Thousands of public servants dismissed in state of emergency decrees have taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), because the Constitutional Court has said that it cannot make any rulings over the decrees.

Just as the ECHR was about to act, the Turkish government set up a State of Emergency Investigation Commission as a domestic remedy.

The ECHR was all too happy to turn down applications until all national legal avenues are exhausted. One year on, the commission has responded only to a few applications.

Thursday’s decision ordering the release of two journalists, Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, again came just as the ECHR was close to issuing its own ruling on their cases.

We can only hope that the Constitutional Court’s ruling will indeed be a genuine turning point for Turkey and not another shrewd attempt to gain time.

This post is also available in: Turkish

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