Turkish trials spur reform of police, judiciary

Allegations of misconduct in two murders – one of an outspoken journalist – have heightened debate.

Crime scene: Police guarded a Bible publishing house in Malatya this past spring after three Christians were killed.

For years, debate about the fairness of Turkey's police and judiciary has simmered here. Now, two high-profile murder trials under way are bringing new light to underlying concerns and spurring stalled efforts for reform. The new intensity of discussion suggests a step toward transparency, though experts are still critical of the institutions.

On Jan. 19, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of outspoken Armenian journalist Hrant Dink's killing, which has been surrounded by accusations of police and prosecutorial impropriety.

Such claims have gained new momentum with the trial for the murder of three Christians in a Bible publishing house last spring. Since the trial opened in November, press reports emerged alleging police collusion in the murders and accused prosecutors in the central Turkish city of Malatya of seriously mishandling the investigation. The allegations were brought by lawyers representing the families of the victims, based on evidence introduced to the court.

As shocked as Turks have been by the accusations in the Dink and Malatya cases, observers say the fact that they are coming to light so quickly represents in itself a kind of step forward.

"There have been a lot of political murders and crimes in the past in Turkey, but it was always very difficult to find out who did it," says Hakan Bakircioglu, a lawyer representing Dink's family at the trial. "These two cases might be the first time we can find the murderers and maybe not catch, but at least touch, the members of state organizations who might be behind the crimes."

Dink's murder on an Istanbul sidewalk last January was quickly followed up by reports that top police officials had been informed months before about a plot by Turkish nationalists to kill him. Meanwhile, a video showing several policemen proudly posing with the murder suspect after he was caught surfaced soon after the murder.

In the Malatya case, press reports have indicated that the suspects, also young nationalists, had phone conversations with police and possibly even with a prosecutor from Istanbul in the months before the murders, something that was not followed up by the prosecutors. The police in Malatya have been accused in the press of destroying videotapes recorded in the hospital room of one of the accused, who injured himself during the crime.

"There is a huge lack of transparency and a huge lack of accountability in the Turkish security services," says Volkan Aytar, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), an Istanbul-based think tank.

Amnesty International has also criticized Turkey's institutions. "The investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations committed by officers of the police and gendarmerie are flawed and compounded by inconsistent decisions by prosecutors and judges," concluded a report last summer.

In response to controversy surrounding the the Malatya case, Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay promised last month to "increase our transparency," announcing that two senior police officials would conduct a probe.

Over the past decade, the Turkish police force has taken some steps toward reform, starting a program which has sent some 250 of its members to obtain advanced degrees in criminal justice in the US and Europe, to help improve the force from the inside.

"There is no doubt that there has been an improvement in the last ten years," says Onder Aytac, a lecturer at Turkey's national police academy in Ankara. "But there is a kind of fighting between the old system and the new system. There are some people in the police force who are trying to go along the old way."

Turkey's judiciary, today seen as one of the pillars maintaining Turkey's secular system, has also made some reform efforts. Over the last few years, more than 9,000 judges and prosecutors have undergone European Union-sponsored training to learn about European human rights law. Turkey is a candidate for EU membership and is a member of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

Still, a recent survey of judges and prosecutors taken by TESEV found that a majority still favors the interests of the state over those of the individual, with 51 percent saying they believe that upholding human rights could pose a threat to state security. But a new constitution in the works would shift the emphasis more toward individual rights, paving the way for Turkey to join the EU.

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