'Radical' shift in Turkey's judiciary

In a bid to join the EU, Turkish judges and prosecutors are being trained in the fundamentals of human rights law.

When a pro-Kurdish politician accused ofsupporting a terrorist organization was acquitted recently, the verdict made front-page news here. "Radical," was how the daily Milliyet described the case.

The nation's State Security Courts (DGMs), tribunals that handle terrorism and political cases, cited European human rights law as the basis of the decision. In doing so, they marked a fundamental shift in the way Turkey's legal system is beginning to operate.

"The DGMs Say Hello to Europe," the newspaper's headline read. But the two courts are not the only parts of the judiciary saying "hello" to Europe. Over the past few months, some 9,200 judges and prosecutors have been trained- in the largest program of its kind in Turkey - in the basic foundations of human rights law. It is a massive effort to help the country adopt a model more in line with European standards.

The program, a project of the Turkish Ministry of Justice and the European Union, is one of numerous reforms undertaken by Turkey as it continues its bid to join the EU. One of the largest obstacles on the road to Brussels, thus far, has been the spotty human rights record of its criminal justice system.

"This [training program] is part of being contemporary. At a certain point you have to respect human rights," says Demet Gural, executive director of the Human Resources Development Foundation. "I wouldn't have imagined 10 years ago that the Ministry of Justice, for example, would be conducting human rights training for its staff."

Reforms have ranged from ending the death penalty to loosening the military's control over civil affairs. Hoping to receive a positive answer from the EU this year about when accession negotiations may begin, Turkey has been passing reform packages at a rapid clip.

So rapid, in fact, that the terrorism trial against 69 people accused of helping organize the deadly Istanbul bombings last November was stopped as soon as it began in a state security court Monday. The defense argued that the case was not valid, since such DGMs are soon to be replaced with new tribunals more in line with European norms.

Organizers of the human rights training program say they are trying to bridge an educational gap that some Turkish jurists may have. "In Turkish law schools, in their old program, there were no courses in human rights," says Ebru Dabbagh, the training program's coordinator. "They learned about human rights as a small part of the penal code or through international law, but they did not learn about it in detail."

International standards

Haluk Mahmutogullari, a judge who heads the Ministry of Justice's training division, says that although Turkish judges and prosecutors are not unaware of international human rights standards, the practical application of those standards has sometimes failed.

"For the last years Turkey has been punished by the European Court of Human Rights quite often," he says, "which meant that we definitely should do something about it and find what we were doing wrong."

Looking at such basic principles as property rights, freedom of association, and prohibitions against torture, the program brought European legal experts to Turkey to train a core group of 225 judges and prosecutors who are now in charge of instructing their colleagues.

The program is one of several initiated over the past year that have attempted to familiarize Turkish judges, prosecutors, and policemen with international human rights standards.

Many experts say these programs reflect a change in how the Turkish state is starting to view international laws and standards.

"Turkish judicial circles had always kept a sort of nationalistic approach to international human rights law, but there is a change," says Turgut Tarhanli, director of the Human Rights Law Research Center at Istanbul Bilgi University, which has taken some 60 judges and prosecutors to legal seminars in Sweden and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

"They are now starting to look at cases through a human rights lens," he says. "There are still problems, but a real change has started."

Turkey's human rights record, eroded for years by charges of torture, police brutality, and questionable legal proceedings has been shaped by the country's turbulent recent history.

State versus individual

A 1980 military coup led to a new constitution that enshrined state order over individual rights. During the bloody fight in the 80s and 90s against the militants of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey's courts were often used as a weapon in that battle.

"In criminal law cases or civil law cases, mainly during the era of struggling against the PKK, the national interests of the state were a priority over the rights of the individual," says Mr. Tarhanli.

But Turkey's hopes of joining the EU, as well as pressure from the US and the country's own civil society organizations, have changed the legal landscape.

"At the state level there was no way [Turkey] could go on with the old regulations," says Mrs. Gural, whose organization began training jurists and policemen on international human-trafficking laws this year.

Human rights activists point out that structural problems still remain, with cases of torture and freedom of expression violations still reported in the country. An EU report last year found that parts of the judiciary still do not always act "in an impartial and consistent manner."

Tarhanli says "black holes" still exist in Turkish daily judicial work. Training programs in human rights law are a start, but he says a critical test is for the country's judges and prosecutors to take what they have learned and apply it in the cases that come before them.

"The most important thing is to what extent can judges and prosecutors use these international instruments of law in their daily work?" he says. "To what extent can they use the knowledge they got in this training?"

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