Erdogan’s Turkey Turns Top Jailer as Rivals See Power Grab

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkeys Prime Minister. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey’s jailing of 17 journalists since September is fuelling accusations that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s changes to the legal system are designed to eliminate opponents rather than harmonize laws with the European Union.

Police arrested investigative reporter Ahmet Sik, whom prosecutors alleged was involved in a coup conspiracy, in March. There are 57 reporters in prison in Turkey, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, making the country the world’s top jailer of journalists, data compiled by the International Press Institute show.

Opposition charges that seizure of the judiciary is part of a power-grab by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, will define the run-up to the June 12 general election, said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London. An erosion of the judiciary’s independence may delay European Union membership and undermine investor confidence in the rule of law, he said. Erdogan says the courts are independent of politics.

“The changes that AKP has made to the judicial system, I’ll say very clearly, are bringing us toward an autocratic, totalitarian system,” said Suheyl Batum, a constitutional lawyer who’s deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. “We have a system not ruled by law, but by the ruling party.”

Sik was imprisoned on March 6 and prosecutors ordered all copies of his unpublished manuscript, one of several works alleging Turkey’s police force is being taken over by the Fethullah Gulen Islamic movement, confiscated or destroyed.

Unprecedented Decision

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the confiscation was unprecedented.

“The government is saying the judiciary is responsible, but ultimately a government does bear responsibility for guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of its citizens,” Schaake said in a telephone interview.

Asked about the arrests by legislators at the European Parliament on April 13, Erdogan, 57, said they were actions by an independent judiciary investigating coup conspiracies.

“Allegations in past weeks that there has been pressure, restrictions and prohibitions against the press and freedom of expression don’t reflect reality,” Erdogan said. “Some arrests and detentions are being perceived as interference with freedom of the press, but I want to remind you that in Europe, there aren’t newspapers and journalists who are encouraging coups.”

Erdogan says no one has been imprisoned for “journalism” and that the changes, including a package of laws passed through a September referendum, make Turkey more democratic and the courts more independent.

Judicial Adjustments

The referendum’s changes to the high courts and judicial selection board led to the replacement of secularist judges and prosecutors with ruling party functionaries under the influence of the Justice Ministry, said Metin Feyzioglu, head of the Ankara Bar Association.

The vote was rushed and the anti-democratic implications of the changes weren’t fully understood, he said. The vote passed 58 percent to 42 percent. A pre-ballot survey found that almost half of voters didn’t know the content of the amendments.

“The government is becoming more and more autocratic, less and less tolerant, and these changes are doing it,” Feyzioglu said in an interview at his seventh-floor office in Ankara. “The general view is that the judiciary is acting as attack dogs for the government.”

Alleged Coups

Prosecutors probing the alleged coup plots have arrested almost 10 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals over the past two years, as well as dozens of prominent journalists and university professors. The Ankara Bar Association on April 13 called for the special criminal courts to be abolished.

Turkey’s military, which has deposed four governments in the past four decades, said it didn’t understand the legality of the continued detention of 163 of its officers in a statement on April 6.

Cuneyt Yuksel, a 41-year-old Harvard University-educated lawyer who helps design AKP’s judicial policies, dismisses the criticism, saying the party’s judicial reform is opposed by an “old elite” of judges and officers who resent that power is moving from their hands to the people’s.

“Ideologically, they block any reform and voters don’t like that,” Yuksel said in an interview at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

Democracy ‘Stronger’

Many investors agree, saying the accusations by Erdogan’s opponents aren’t realistic and haven’t proven true during his eight years in power.

“I don’t believe in this ‘secret agenda,’” said Vassilis Karatzas, managing director of Levant Partners, a hedge fund in Athens that has $125 million invested in Turkey and the Middle East. “This is a government that has been able to provide a voice for different parts of Turkish society, and Turkish democracy is getting stronger by the day.”

Investors “don’t care until they get hit,” Piccoli, the Eurasia analyst, said. “But sooner or later someone’s going to get hit.” For corporate investors, “the question of rule of law is a significant one and an area they should keep an eye on,” he said.

The lack of foreigners from major privatization tenders in Turkey may already indicate that “they see the picture becoming a little more blurred about the rule of law,” he said.

Opposition parties are highlighting the issue in an effort to cut into Erdogan’s popularity ahead of June’s vote.

Under the slogan, “Turkey will take a breath of fresh air,” the main opposition Republican People’s Party is basing its campaign partly on what it says is Erdogan’s politicization of the judiciary and increasing centralization of powers.

Opposition Leader

“There’s a 21st century massacre of the law going on in Turkey,” leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said in an address to his party on April 5.

To be sure, Batum says the party’s concerns often fall on deaf ears, largely because voters have benefitted from nine years of record economic growth.

“I go on TV to explain this stuff, but it’s too technical and a little depressing,” Batum said in an interview at the party headquarters in Ankara. “They say I’m boring and then don’t invite me back.”

Since the AKP took office in 2002, the main ISE National-100 share index has risen by a factor of eight in dollar terms, almost double the gain of the MSCI Emerging Market Index. Gross domestic product jumped 8.9 percent last year and GDP per person has almost tripled to $10,043 in 2010, according to the Treasury. Interest rates have fallen to an all-time low and inflation slowed to a 40-year-low of 4 percent in March.

“Most investors draw a parallel between the ruling party and a spectacular statistical series,” said Peter Bodis, a fund manager at Pioneer Investments in Vienna, which has about $1 billion in emerging market equities. That’s drowned out legitimate concerns that the party is “promoting Islam and not respecting rights,” he said, which “has the potential to erupt into something later that can disrupt the economy.”

Third Election

Erdogan has won two landslide election victories and has about a 20 percentage-point lead in the polls as he campaigns for a third term on June 12, according to surveys by Metropoll and Andy-AR published April 25.

He is already Turkey’s third-longest-serving premier. Another term may see Erdogan pass Ismet Inonu, a contemporary of the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who enshrined secularism in Turkey’s constitution, and Adnan Menderes, who was hanged after a military coup in 1960 for violating it.

Erdogan’s climb to power was once blocked by the same courts he’s now changing. Prosecutors banned Islamic political parties he joined in the 1980s and 1990s, sentenced him to prison after he read a poem in public they alleged incited religious hatred in 1997 and almost succeeded in banning his ruling Justice and Development Party in 2008 on charges it was plotting to overthrow Turkey’s secular system.

New Constitution?

The 2008 court case sent the stock market down by as much as 25 percent to a two-year low.

Erdogan has vowed to write a new constitution after the June election and said in a Bloomberg interview in London on March 31 that he may press ahead with changes and put the government’s transformation to a presidential system from a parliamentary system to a public referendum.

“There is a question mark about whether Erdogan’s going too far,” Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at the Royal Bank of Scotland, said in a telephone interview from London. “Political developments in Turkey still need to be watched as they still represent ‘clear and present dangers’ to the market’s cozy consensus view,” he said.

“Using the coup cases, the government is trying to erase the opposition and wipe out dissidents,” Ertugrul Mavioglu, an editor at Radikal newspaper and co-author of a book with Sik about the coup investigations, said in Istanbul. “If Ahmet was imprisoned, anyone can be imprisoned. The justification for confiscating the book was so broad that it implicated the whole world, seven billion people. We refuse to let this continue.”

Mavioglu is facing up to three years of jail time for his book about the coup investigations, called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” the state-run Anatolia news agency says.

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