War Trumps Politics: Judicial Reform Bill Fails to Inspire Hope Amid Syria Offensive
As the whole Turkey marches on a war footing, the political debate has entirely been consumed by the military operation in northern Syria, trumping all other topics of vital importance. One important victim of this state of war is a long-anticipated judicial reform whose trimmed version is now getting a hearing in Turkey’s Parliament. But all attention is elsewhere, in northern Syria, where the Turkish troops make steady advances against SDF in a quest to crush the Kurdish militia’s sway across the southern side of the Turkish-Syrian border. As war trumpets fill the air, all other voices of reason and common sense lose their traction and compass.
While the all-consuming aspect of the war keeps attention away from the debates in the legislative body, some opposition lawmakers tried their best to make a compelling case for restoring rights for people who lost their jobs during the emergency rule.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a lawmaker from pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), offered a long list of rights abuses committed by the government against its own citizens since the first declaration of the state of emergency in 2016. Futile though the attempt may seem, he nevertheless sought to channel the gravity of attention to the legislative bill to redress KHK people’s dismal state. In his capacity, he projected the focus to the heart of the matter — to cancel all decrees and to restore dismissed workers back to their positions.
For months, Turkey anticipated a judicial reform to address the deficiencies and shortcomings in the legal system as well as the demands of purge victims. This is all the more important given that there is little prospect for a satisfying legal remedy in the domestic realm in the aftermath of a coup attempt in 2016, a watershed moment that eventually upended Turkey’s century-old governing system with its era-defining repercussions.
No less than 150,000 public workers were dismissed on dubious grounds. The subsequent emergency rule that completed the government’s handling of the post-coup chaos created more problems than it ever really solved. It is the emergency rule practices — decrees — that constitute the bulk of the rights violations and systemic abuses on the legal front. It is this aspect that formed the starting point for the latest judicial reform, if it ever could be called one, to correct misdeeds of the post-coup era.
To be honest, expectations were already modest given the signs of the narrowness of the package, to say nothing of the emerging political tug of war between diverse factions within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Proponents and discontents of the reform bill jostled over its content. For months, arguments oscillated back and forth between the idea of full amnesty to all KHK people (a term used to describe sacked public workers) and partial restoration of rights. The semantic connotations of a general amnesty were never without controversy for purge victims and for those who were imprisoned en masse in the post-coup crackdown. On discursive level, the amnesty, not incoherently, implies the pardoning of crimes perpetrated by the convicted people. Here a lingering dispute of great importance lies.
Needless to say, the whole line of defense for many purge victims is anchored on the unflinching claim of their innocence. Any admission of amnesty for the sake of short sentences or early release from prison also risks an indirect acknowledgment of the government’s charges of criminal wrongdoing. This poses a moral dilemma for many people as they are torn between the prospect of a longer sentence, however unjust it may be, and the possibility of some relief even if it comes at the expense of their whole argument.
Mindful of this sinister double-play by the authorities, some purge victims categorically reject the term of amnesty and say they do not need to be forgiven, because they already did not commit any crime and they were only in prison because of political persecution by the government. But if this kind of thinking exists, (so far as we extrapolate from debates on social media, it does), it is certainly not the dominant approach. This is all the more so as the majority of the victims prefer betterment in their lives rather than being locked in an everlasting debate in the wording of the new reform package.
“We don’t expect an amnesty to KHK people. Let’s see whether we would forgive them [the government] for constitutional violations, for repression, for lawlessness and the genocide,” Gergerlioglu spoke with conviction, in allusion to the ongoing debate among the KHK community. His stance was crystal clear, reflecting the first approach. The KHK people, he contended, are not criminals in search of government’s magnanimous pardoning for their alleged crimes. It is who condemned the innocent people of different political persuasion to abject poverty and social isolation are the criminal ones, according to him.
Parliament and presidential palace have already been preoccupied with the ongoing military incursion to Syria amid a torrent of international criticism condemning Turkey’s targeting of Syrian Kurds. The swelling nationalism is on vivid display as speaking against the operation has soon become unanimous with treason, risking immediate prosecutorial action.
Gergerlioglu, for his part, described the government’s efforts to muzzle any critical voice as practices of a police state. The HDP, the pro-Kurdish party which is home to liberal and leftist figures, was the only party voted against a motion in Parliament where the majority of lawmakers provided a legal framework to enable the government to send Turkish troops to a foreign country.
But while the entire country locked in on their TV screens to stay tune with the latest military endeavor in northeastern Syria, there is another, and certainly no less significant, development that takes place in Turkey. After months of haggling, the judicial reform package finally hit the floor of Parliament for a broader discussion in the General Assembly. It was first accepted in the parliamentary judicial committee last week. In this shape, however, the bill is far from convincing.
The government has so far shown no appetite for endorsing any comprehensive legislative plan for purge victims, unless it is of its own devising. Yet, when it comes forward to present a draft bill to address the issue, it looks anything but a reform package.
To give just one example, it is suffice to say that even if a citizen has no criminal record and gets a complete ok from a court, his/her chance of getting a passport still becomes dependent on the whims and will of the Interior Ministry, which, with this new bill, acquires the final say over allowing someone to visit abroad. If you are a good citizen and you have no court decision against you, it is still not enough for your travel freedom. The executive branch usurps the authority of the judicial branch to decide in favor of or against a citizen regarding the matter of overseas travel.
For brevity’s sake, an exhaustive review of the entire package (see Amnesty International’s sober analysis) is eschewed here. But to emphasize the gist of the argument, it is imperative to say that this new reform package is neither new nor reformist. Its spirit and outlook is nothing more than a window dressing, devoid of substance and corrective justice.