For years, Turkish president lamented that judiciary should not only be independent, but also neutral. Since he came to power in 2003, the hostile judiciary was a nightmare for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In 2008, Turkish chief public prosecutor sought, unsuccessfully, to shut down the party.
But 2010 constitutional referendum significantly changed the judicial landscape, restricting the power of the military over judiciary and giving more powers to civilians in appointing members of top judicial bodies.
Now the picture is turned upside down, senior members of Turkey’s judiciary are under fire for attending a ceremony in the presidential compound — a sumptuous palace long symbolized the expanding power of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The ceremony on Wednesday marked the start of the judicial year in Turkey, but its venue cast a shadow on a judiciary that has already been criticized for pandering to government’s wishes. Main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and president of Union of Turkish Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, boycotted the gathering.
As Erdogan entered into a hall of 1,500 participants, most of them members of the judiciary in their traditional attire, the audience gave a round of standing ovation to the president. Some members of the judiciary were reluctant in standing up upon Erdogan’s arrival and some of them refused to applaud. Erdogan’s speech, however, was often interrupted by applause, drawing opposition’s ire. “Jurists for Justice”, an advocacy group, said in a statement that standing ovation for Erdogan was “a ceremony to surrender judiciary to the executive.”
Kilicdaroglu told reporters on Wednesday that holding the ceremony in the palace is an affront to the judicial independence. “When a US president enters into a hall, judges don’t stand up or applaud. But [in Turkey] they stand up altoghether and give a round of applause. What does it mean? It means the judiciary is under command of the executive branch. It means judiciary is politicized,” Kilicdaroglu said.
Erdogan described the palace as the “nation’s house” and said holding the ceremony in the presidential compound only reinforces judicial independence. Position of Turkish presidency is a ceremonial one and is considered to be above political fray. But since Erdogan assumed the presidency, he de facto transformed it into an executive position and vowed to expand its powers further.
The latest US human rights report claimed that wide leeway is granted to prosecutors and judges who contributed to politically motivated investigations in Turkey and critics fear that the judiciary is acting in line with government’s wishes.
The crackdown on the critical members of the judiciary significantly escalated since July 15 coup attempt. Nearly 3,000 judges and prosecutors were locked up in connection to the coup attempt. Only on Wednesday, 543 judges and prosecutors were fired from their position on charges of supporting the coup.
On Wednesday, Istanbul Bar Association issued a statement condemning the ceremony’s venue. It said the judiciary cannot be “jailed inside a palace.”