Government's push to restrict judicial powers meets severe resistance

On the third day of deliberations in the Justice Commission on Sunday, tensions escalated as deputies continued to fight over a bill that many see as a government attempt to control the judiciary through extraordinary powers. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defended the bill, saying everything is happening by the book and that what matters in the Commission is the vote at the end of the day. “In democracies, everything boils down to the vote,” he underlined, signaling that he will push ahead with his ruling majority in the commissions and in Parliament.

The prime minister also accused the judiciary of being unaccountable to the people’s will and preventing businesspeople from doing their jobs, reports Today’s Zaman.

Erdoğan criticized a judge who was kicked by a lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) during a parliamentary commission debate on Saturday, accusing him of attempting to make a statement beyond the bounds of his authority.

The prime minister also told reporters, while inspecting a mosque under construction on Çamlıca Hill on the Anatolian side of İstanbul, that brawls among deputies cause greater tension during these sessions. He added that it is wrong for individuals to enter the Justice Commission and make statements without the proper authority, referring to Ömer Faruk Eminağaoğlu, chairman of the Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) and a judge in Çankırı province.

“First of all, you have no authority to speak there. Who are you? Know your limits. The place where you need to talk is a different place,” he said, adding that Eminağaoğlu and people of his kind are “militants,” not men of law.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed a complaint with the Parliamentary Speaker’s Office, stating that the AK Party’s Zeyid Aslan must be punished for kicking Eminağaoğlu during the commission meeting. The complaint, signed by CHP parliamentary deputy chairman Engin Altay, included a statement that Aslan’s attack on Eminağaoğlu had tarnished the reputation of Parliament.

The CHP claimed that physical attacks during these debates have prevented the commission from doing its work. As the debate was in progress, punches were thrown and water bottles, folders and even an iPad flew through the air on Saturday.

Eminağaoğlu attempted to speak again on Sunday but was met with protests from some deputies of the ruling party. He was then escorted out of the meeting after the chairman would not allow him to speak.

It is not unusual for Commission members to hear the views of non-deputies, including members of government agencies, civil society representatives or unions. The fact that no members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which would be directly affected by the bill, were invited to the Commission was also criticized by opposition parties.

The Commission was chaired by AK Party deputy Ahmet İyimaya, while Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ was also present during the deliberations.

Oktay Vural, a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy, said the opposition has no power other than words, noting that the Commission’s chairman must guarantee an environment in which Commission members can voice their opinions freely.

Top judicial body opposed to change

So far, 15 members of the HSYK have voiced their strong objection to the governing party’s proposal to restructure the board, saying the plan violates the Constitution. They argue that the proposal contradicts the constitutional principle of the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and seeks to subordinate the board to the justice minister.

Earlier this week, the AK Party’s proposal to restructure the HSYK was slammed by critics on the grounds that the bill would give the government a tighter grip on the judiciary.

Erdoğan claimed on Sunday that the bill is not a violation of the Constitution, adding that the opposition will have an opportunity to ask the Constitutional Court to reverse the decision after it is adopted by Parliament.

The opposition, however, is worried that once the bill is approved and signed into law by the president, the government may drastically restructure the judiciary while the Supreme Court revises the constitutionality of the law.

The legislation would allows the undersecretary of the justice minister to be elected chairman of the HSYK. The bill also rules that the board will no longer have the authority to pass decrees and regulations. Instead, the justice minister will be entitled to pass these on behalf of the HSYK. Furthermore, the board will be stripped of the authority to launch investigations into HSYK members. This authority will also be handed over to the justice minister.

The bill has drawn the ire of legal experts and jurists, as there is mounting concern over the gradual disappearance of the separation of judicial and executive powers and the ruling AK Party’s desire to make the judiciary subservient to the government.

HSYK Deputy Chairman Ahmet Hamsici issued a 66-page statement on Friday in which he said the proposal seeks to destroy the independence of the board as well as the separation of powers in the country. According to the statement, if adopted, the bill will place the HSYK under the control of the justice minister.

The 15 HSYK members also complained that the AK Party proposal ignores the principle of the rule of law as well as the independence of the courts and the authority of judges.

Hamsici also underlined in his statement that most of the articles included in the bill violate international law, including the criteria set by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s (CoE) advisory board that seeks to uphold the constitutional principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as well as some previous rulings of the Consultative Council of European Judges (CCJE) and a decision of the Committee of Ministers of the CoE on the independence of judges.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said, “Every judicial expert knows that the AK Party’s HSYK proposal violates the Constitution.”

The planned changes to the HSYK have emerged during a heated debate over the future of a corruption and bribery investigation that has implicated certain AK Party ministers. The sons of two former ministers are among 24 high-profile names, including some bureaucrats and businesspeople, who were arrested in mid-December 2013 on corruption and bribery charges as part of the investigation.

Since the launch of the investigation, the government has faced persistent accusations of interfering with the judicial authorities in order impede the investigation.

The head of the Justice Academy and a member of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Hüseyin Yıldırım, also criticized the HSYK proposal, arguing that the new law will end the duties of the chairman, deputy chairmen, head of the education center, its deputy heads, judges, experts and all other administrative and auxiliary personnel in a way that was unseen even in “extraordinary times,” referring to the several military coups in Turkish history.