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Two Years On, No Remedy for Turkey’s Purge Victims

Two years after the first announcement of the emergency rule and a relentless crackdown on a diverse set of groups and public servants, both the path to domestic legal remedy and the protection of the independence of legal profession remains to be elusive and unattainable for purge victims.

Facing international criticism and calls for addressing the situation of purge victims, the Turkish government set up a commission to offer a legal remedy on the domestic realm in early 2017. It was supposed to process and review applications of more than 100,000 public servants who had been dismissed without due process in the aftermath of a coup attempt in 2016 summer.

But nearly two years after its establishment, the body proved to be serving as window dressing to dodge the legal process and to sully Turkish citizens’ rightful attempts to seek remedy at Strasbourg-based European court. After cursory reviews, the body rejected majority of the cases, offering no plausible explanation from a legal angle over its refusals.

Even at the beginning, hopes were modest but nonetheless salient given the despair and lack of alternatives that gripped aggrieved public workers who were summarily discharged from duty.

The formation of the seven-member commission did never arouse expectation for some legal experts given practical and technical issues at play. But technical challenges and being understaffed aside, the way how the institution was structured appears to have destined to fail. The contours of its decision-making are heavily shaped by political considerations.

A recent report by three non-governmental organizations demonstrates how the commission categorically let people down and has fallen short of carrying out its vaguely and opaquely defined mission. The botched coup provided a broad leeway to the government to bring civil service and security bureaucracy into its full control. The institutions have been hollowed out, while more than 150,000 public workers have been condemned to penury almost overnight with a series of government decrees issued during the two-year state of emergency.

With nowhere else to go, the sacked people flocked to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg en masse. The likelihood of flooding ECtHR with applications from Turkey has created an acute sense of fear across the E.U. In this respect, the Venice Commission urged Ankara to keep at least some channels open for a domestic legal remedy for purge victims. It was, after all, an understandable call for them to avoid an enervating slog that could deadlock the ECtHR and other institutions across the union.

But that proposal has only aggravated the disillusionment of disaffected people in Turkey. It proved to be shakier than hitherto imagined. The commission at first dragged its foot too long before finally acting, then prolonged its working in long stretches than expected. None of its fatuous workings palliated people’s grievances, let alone its disappointing decisions.

Only a small bulk of servants have seen the pay-off after the commission’s re-evaluation process as they were restored to their posts. The OHAL Commission, as publicly known, was entrusted with an excruciating task and presided over a very chaotic period. Behind the facade of the “noble cause” that triggered its creation, it was indeed designed to serve to temper demands from the Western world to correct injustices foisted by the Turkish government upon the dismissed workers.

The constellation of concerns of the purge victims is rooted in the very structure of the OHAL Commission. According to them, the commission does little, if not nothing at all, to restore justice. The political influence is unmistakable, the challenge daunting and the work ahead insurmountable. Against this backdrop, the dismissed servants have naturally grown disenchanted.

Turkey’s Justice Ministry may have boasted with its self-promoted proposition regarding what the commission has done so far in terms of “distributing justice.” The report by three organizations comes as a strong rebuke to this drivel. The wobbly commission does not instill any confidence. Its unscrupulous record only highlights the need for reinvention of the entire body, a clear re-definition of its mission and restructuring of its personnel. Not for polishing Turkey’s battered international image. But for delivering justice to people who are so deprived of it over the past two years.

What magnifies the gravity of the situation, as eloquently demonstrated by the report, is the systematic targeting of lawyers, severing people’s right and access to legal counsel and defense.

The core contention of the report is that the legal profession in Turkey had already been under threat even before the attempted coup in 2016. But, it noted, the crackdown has reached unprecedented levels since the botched coup, shredding essential safeguards that ensure the proper functioning of Turkey’s judiciary.

“To date, 4,279 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed. Five hundred and ninety lawyers have been arrested, 1,546 prosecuted and 181 convicted,” the report documented.

The access to lawyers, among other things, remains a significant problem for defendants and people who stand trial over coup-related and terrorism charges. The limitations on legal defense, the clampdown on judges, prosecutors and lawyers, the disregard of basic rights for the accused people only serve to taint the integrity and fairness of the post-coup trials.

The Turkish authorities are increasingly insouciant and indifferent toward the plight of the purge victims. For the sake of preserving fragile ties, the E.U., however, has no luxury of turning a blind eye on these gross human rights violations taking place in Turkey. The issue is not a done one. The purge is a living social disaster that asserts itself every day by pushing people to the utter despair and despondency. Public workers, who once belonged to the well-to-do, upper stratum of the society, now teeter on the edge of social and economic calamity. It must be borne in the mind that they are no longer entitled to any social and health benefit accrued by the government. They face a slow, but steady “civilian death,” as a pro-government journalist succinctly put it. The purge and its calamitous impact on people are here and will continue to destroy families as long as no effective remedy is provided.

The whole world must come to grips with an unpleasant fact that Turkey, a NATO member and E.U. candidate, placed certain segments of society on a steady path of social death. And given that more than 50,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 150,000 detained for a different amount of times in the aftermath of the coup, the independence of judges and judiciary members, the right to legal defense and safety of lawyers emerge as urgent matters to be dealt with.

In the face of lack of domestic legal remedy, the ECtHR should not dismiss applications from the Turkish people. Relevant institutions of the E.U. also must increase their calls and pressure on the Turkish government to abide by universal standards of fair trials, maintain safeguards that guarantee the defendants’ rights to have proper legal defense and representation, and ensure judicial independence in its fullest form.

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