Turkish president approves controversial third judicial reform package

Turkish President Abdullah Gül has approved a controversial third judicial reform package, sending the law to the Prime Ministry for publication in the Official Gazette.

The third judicial reform package was adopted in Parliament late on Monday and obliges prosecutors to obtain permission from relevant authorities in order to investigate officers in a number of top state institutions, including the General Staff, the National Security Council (MGK), the National Intelligence Organization (M?T) and the police force. Prior to the third judicial reform package, prosecutors were free to investigate any state official, no matter the crime.

In addition, the new reform package penalizes reporting on secretly recorded conversations with up to five years in prison. In Turkey, it is common to hear recordings featuring the voices of senior military officers or bureaucrats expressing their views about political and military issues. The recordings are often posted on video-sharing websites and newspapers often publish stories on their content.
According to the new reform package, persons who violate the privacy of personal communications will be sentenced to jail terms of between one to three years, persons who secretly record a conversation without the permission of the participating parties will be penalized with a prison term ranging form six months to two years and persons who wiretap and report a conversation without the permission of the participating parties will be sentenced to between two years and five years in prison.

Turkey’s journalists have expressed concern that they will not be able to carry out their profession freely under the new package.

The package also curtails the powers of specially authorized courts dealing with coup and terror cases, abolishing and replacing them with regional terrorism courts. However, special courts will continue to exist only to oversee existing coup and terror cases until a final verdict is reached, but judges hearing these cases will not be assigned to the new regional high criminal courts.

Some of the cases currently being heard by special courts include Ergenekon, a clandestine criminal network accused of plotting to overthrow the government; Balyoz (Sledgehammer), a suspected coup plot believed to have been devised in 2003 with the aim of unseating the government through violent acts; and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and other related organizations. A number of ongoing investigations into coup plots and terrorism suspects will be moved from special courts to new regional high criminal courts.

Under the new package, suspects will not be detained for more than 48 hours following their capture. Courts will be allowed to hear a case in another province, citing security concerns. Judges will no longer have the authority issue arrest warrants for a suspect unless overriding evidence exists.

In addition, the right to issue a ruling on a jail sentence will no longer lie with the judge hearing that case. Another judge, dubbed the “judge of freedoms,” to be assigned by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) will decide on sentencing instead. Suspects will also have the right to appeal the decision. The government believes the change will strengthen individual rights and freedoms.

Suspects who commit crimes on behalf of an organized criminal group without becoming a member of that group can no longer be convicted of membership in an organized criminal group. Instead, they can be charged with aiding and abetting, which carries a lesser sentence.

Prosecutors involved in an investigation were previously allowed to travel to other provinces to inspect crime scenes, to interrogate suspects or to supervise police officers when taking suspects into custody. However, with the new changes they will not be allowed to do so any longer. They will be required to send written requests to prosecutors’ offices in relevant provinces asking the offices to assign prosecutors to inspect crime scenes, interrogate suspects and supervise police officers during the detention and interrogation of suspects.

Legal experts believe such a change will make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain evidence of crimes. The new judicial package also envisages that case files that have accumulated in the Council of State will be completed within three years at the latest.

An earlier report said the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is planning to appeal an article in the package before the Constitutional Court in the next few days. According to the daily, the CHP believes the article concerning the abolishment of specially authorized courts runs contrary to the principle of “equality before the law.” CHP parliamentary group Deputy Chairman Emine Ülker Tarhan says her party thinks the article will lead to “dual standards” in the Turkish judiciary and that the trial of suspects under differing principles is unfair.

The article in question in the third judicial reform package abolishes these courts and removes the privileges of specially authorized prosecutors. With the change, some existing investigations being carried out by specially authorized prosecutors will be reassigned to ordinary prosecutors. These investigations include the Feb. 28, 1997 “postmodern” coup case, a case concerning an air strike that killed 34 civilians in Uludere last December and trial on the helicopter crash that killed former Grand Unity Party (BBP) leader Muhsin Yaz?c?o?lu and five others in 2009.

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