|As the international crisis over the Israel-Hamas war rages on, Turkey became embroiled in a domestic crisis on Wednesday when the country’s top appeals court filed a criminal complaint against the justices of the Constitutional Court, the country’s top court.
The unprecedented move came after the Constitutional Court last month ruled in favor of releasing a prominent rights activist and newly elected opposition lawmaker, Can Atalay, from jail on the grounds that his right to hold office and other freedoms were violated.
On Wednesday, the appeals court announced that it would not abide by the decision of the Constitutional Court, claiming that nine out of the 15-justice panel who voted for Atalay’s release violated the constitution.
Atalay has been behind bars for over a year, along with four other rights activists convicted of attempting to overthrow the government during the 2013 nationwide protests. Their trials have been widely slammed as politically motivated and aimed at silencing dissent. Among the convicts is prominent Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been locked up for six years.
Friction between the two courts has exacerbated concerns over the country’s judicial independence, which government critics argue has largely eroded under Erdogan’s presidency.
Releasing its annual report this week on Turkey, whose bid to join the European Union has been frozen since 2018, the European Commission expressed serious concerns over “the continued deterioration of democratic standards, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and respect for fundamental rights.”
On Thursday, Nacho Sanchez Amor, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, described the clash between the two courts as “surreal,” saying, “It opens an unprecedented institutional crisis and confirms all concerns about Turkey’s judiciary expressed for years.”
Opposition parties also slammed the top appeals court’s move as a “judicial coup” attempt against the parliament. In its ruling on Wednesday, the top appeals court also said it would instruct parliament to strip Atalay of his parliamentary membership.
Ozgur Ozel, the new leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) called for an emergency meeting to discuss the matter. Afterward, CHP and some other opposition lawmakers staged a sit-in at the parliament’s general assembly, protesting “the judicial crisis and the coup attempt.”
Many believe the clash reflects the deep-running power struggle within the Turkish judiciary between those who are close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and those who are close to its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) .
Although Erdogan hasn’t commented on the issue as of this writing, his close aides already rallied behind the top appeals court. Mehmet Ucum, Erdogan’s chief advisor, defended the top appeals court, accusing the Constitutional Court of engaging in “judicial activism.”
“Turkey will defend its national judiciary against pro-Western and neo-liberal judicial approaches to the end,” he said.
Yet, the Constitutional Court’s pro-Western stance is questionable given a series of rulings that clash with Western democratic standards. Just this week, the court upheld a controversial “disinformation” law that has led to the prosecution of dozens of journalists.
According to Gokcer Tahincioglu, a veteran justice reporter, the mixed signals coming from the AKP camp also indicate internal differences within the ruling party.
“There has been a tendency for local courts not to comply with the rulings of the Constitutional Court on critical issues for a long time,” Tahincioglu said. But now, “for the first time, a high court, the top appeals court, openly declared that it wouldn’t abide by the ruling. They also filed a criminal complaint against its members.”
Still, the Constitutional Court’s launching of an investigation against its own members seems effectively impossible as such a step would require at least 10 justices, Tahincioglu noted.