In an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI) last week (see above video), leading Turkish lawyer Veysel Ok highlighted the psychological importance to detained journalists of trial monitoring in Turkey by human rights groups and stressed the need to attend cases outside Istanbul.
Ok, whose clients include recently freed German journalist Deniz Yücel, was among the speakers at a press conference in Vienna hosted by a coalition of Austrian judges, lawyers and civil society groups supporting the rule of law in Turkey. IPI has been a member of the coalition since its inception.
Speakers at the press conference, entitled “Arbitrary Detention and Crash of the State of Law: The Passivity of the European Court of Human Rights and of European States”, addressed the breakdown in the rule of law in Turkey and the perceived ineffectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in response to that breakdown. The ECtHR has so far insisted that all domestic legal remedies in Turkey first be exhausted before it will consider the cases of imprisoned journalists and sacked academics and judges.
Also speaking on the panel were lawyer Ceren Uysal; Friedrich Forsthuber, president of the Vienna Criminal Court; and Hannes Tretter, scientific director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights.
On the subject of the ECtHR, Tretter said that the Court “has a tremendous moral obligation to give up its previous restraint and to accept direct complaints as admissible”.
He suggested further that the ECtHR could rule on a few “pilot cases” to be then applied as a benchmark by the Turkish courts in related cases. Tretter pointed out that over the past decades, the ECtHR has “developed a high degree of credibility and trust through its consistent and, in some cases, courageous case law”. The court would lose that credibility if it did not act soon, though, he said.
Tretter further expressed concern that the ECtHR risked appearing “no longer politically independent” if it paid too much heed to the political considerations of Ankara.
112,000 cases before Constitutional Court
In theory, journalists claiming rights violations in Turkey should call on Turkey’s Constitutional Court prior to appealing to the ECtHR. However, with over 112,000 cases currently pending before the Constitutional Court, it is very hard to see the latter providing swift and effective recourse for applicants.
The Constitutional Court’s effectiveness was further called into question last month after a lower court ignored its ruling ordering the release of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan.
That fleeting victory at the Constitutional Court was the work of Veysel Ok, who is also behind the appeals of Yücel and Mehmet and his brother, Ahmet, before the ECtHR.
Yücel: Question is not why he was released, but why he was arrested
With regards to Yücel, who has been freed on bail, Ok stressed that the work was not over. While there has been much speculation on a possible “deal” between Germany and Turkey for Yücel’s release, Ok reminded the audience in Vienna that the journalist’s case was now pending before the ECtHR and that the real question was not why Yücel had been so speedily released, but why he was arrested in the first place.
Ok also pointed out numerous failures of the rule of law in Yücel’s case. Notably, prosecutors in Turkey did not present an indictment until over a year after Yücel’s initial arrest. When they did, it consisted of a scant three pages and called for a sentence of 18 years in prison. The “evidence” consisted of several newspaper articles, some of which criticize the Turkish government’s policy on Syria, one consists of an interview with a leader of the outlawed PKK group and another recounts a joke about a Turkish and Kurdish person facing the death penalty. The indictment cites reference to the joke, which is well known to most of the population in Turkey, as evidence of Yücel’s having “incited the people to enmity and hatred”.
The evidence against Yücel is almost all journalistic in nature and consists of articles written for the German newspaper Die Welt over two years ago. Despite the fact that articles more than two years old are no longer admissible as evidence under Turkish press law, the pieces in question are being used to support a demand for an 18-year prison sentence.
Prosecutor refused to meet defence team for over a year
In an interview with IPI after the press conference, Ok revealed that despite repeated requests, the prosecutor in Yücel’s case would not meet with him or his legal team, in effect refusing to divulge any evidence the prosecutor’s office was holding. Ok also noted that the courts themselves would not return phone calls and generally were not cooperating with his team.
When asked whether he retained faith in the ability of the Constitutional Court to issue decisions in light of the conflict over the Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay ruling, Ok said that the lower courts had acted in contravention of constitutional law and that he believed the Constitutional Court would fulfil its purpose and remain independent.
On the subject of journalists on trial, Ok stated that international observers and diplomats should not focus only on Istanbul but instead also monitor trials across the country in places where journalists are often targeted even more heavily and suffer greater rights abuses, including being subject to torture.
He stressed the need for legal support for the remaining journalists in prison in Turkey and said that clients from all over Anatolia, including from Van, Batman and other cities in the country’s east, were applying for help to the Media and Law Studies Association, which Ok chairs.
Praising the international solidarity shown by non-governmental organizations such as IPI, Article 19 and PEN International, Ok urged those groups to redouble efforts to monitor trials outside Istanbul.
“I think (NGOs) should keep on spreading the news and coming to observe the trials”, he said. “It’s important from a psychological point of view so that journalists do not feel alone. This solidarity also gives a message to the Turkish legal system that the world is watching.”