Comprehensive justice monitoring study by MLSA suggests that Turkish courts rely on detention measures excessively in freedom of speech trials; detainees are often not brought to court, or they are handcuffed unnecessarily
Turkish courts detain suspects when the only evidence against them is their written or spoken words, a justice monitoring study conducted by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and the International Press Institute (IPI) in the second half of 2018 has found.
According to the findings of the study, which was supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNST), 38% of the defendants in free-speech trials observed were imprisoned; a violation of international standards. The study also identified a large number of other systematic violations of the right to a fair trial, such as the surprisingly high number of trials where imprisoned defendants are not brought to court in person.
To share the results of the study with the public, a press conference was held on 22 January 2019, Tuesday. Representatives from the Consulates of United States, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary and Russia, as well as local and foreign journalists attended the event.
During the introductory remarks of the press conference, MLSA Co-Director Barış Altıntaş said MLSA had worked with 30 monitors between 1 June 2018 and 31 December 2018 in 10 different cities and monitored 82 hearings (heard over 90 court sessions) in 71 trials where the suspects were accused of mostly terror-related crimes based on their written or oral statements.
Stating that their study was the first one in the recent period that collected systematic and qualitative data from hearings, Altıntaş said: “Many people were prosecuted in the crackdown that came in the aftermath of the coup attempt over their statements, news reports or social media posts. Given the recent decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding applications from Turkey, it has become all the more important for all civil society to examine how effective the Turkish court system really is in terms of domestic remedies available. This was the ultimate purpose of our project, which we hope to continue next year.”
She said that 76% of the trials which were monitored as part of the project were held in Istanbul, 18% were in predominantly Kurdish-populated cities, 3% in Izmir, and %3 in Ankara.
Defendants not brought to court to face their judge
MLSA Co-Director Veysel Ok stated that according to the data collected, the suspects were detained in 38% of the monitored cases despite the only evidence against them being freedom of expression related statements. He also noted that in 34% of the hearings where at least one defendant was in detention, the imprisoned person or people were not brought to the courtroom physically and had to present their defense via the video-link called SEGBİS, or had not submitted a testimony at all.
Ok remarked that the overuse of this practice contravenes the principle of face-to-face confrontation and violates the right to defend oneself, completely suppressing the right to a fair trial.
Ok noted, “Journalists, lawyers, academics, and human rights activists who are tried in these trials were mainly accused of terror related charges and these charges were often backed with evidence such as statements, written work, and social media posts. This constitutes a violation of Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and contravenes the legal precedents of the ECtHR.”
Suspects locked up in far-off cities
Another striking finding of the report shows that in 77% of these trials, the evidence against the defendants consisted of the news reports, interviews, and columns they wrote, or the photographs they took, and transcripts of their phone conversations with news sources. In 24% of the trials, social media posts were also included as evidence.
In 40% of the hearings with detained defendants, the defendants were held in a prison that is located in a province different than the one where the court where their proceedings were underway was. This is one of the primary reasons set forth by officials to justify the defendants not being brought to court physically.
Free expression treated as “terror” crime
The Justice Monitoring Project puts forward that most of the charges against defendants who are tried with crimes relating to freedom of speech are mostly charged with terror related crimes. 72% of the charges brought against the defendants were terror-related crimes. In 35 out of the 71 the trials observed, defendants were charged with terrorist propaganda; in 25 they were charged with membership in a terrorist organization; in 7 they were charged with willingly and knowingly aiding and abetting a terrorist organization; in 5 they were charged with founding and/or leading a terrorist organization, and in 5 cases they were charged with committing a crime on behalf of a terrorist organization without being a member.
The remaining 28% of the charges included the following accusations: attack on personal rights (slander, insult, defamation, libel), attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, denigrating the Turkish nation and/or institutions of Turkey, insulting the president, inciting the public to hatred and animosity and exposing state secrets.
In the remainder of the report, further legal commentary on human rights violations was mentioned. This section touched upon unlawful arrests, long detention periods, defendants not being brought to the court physically, frequent changes to the panel of judges, defendants being brought before the court in handcuffs, deliberations not taking place in private, and the panel’s impolite manner while evaluating these factors from the perspective of universal principles of justice.