Turkey, the rule of law and freedom of religion

The recent failed coup attempt in Turkey raises lots of questions, most of which are well beyond the scope of this blog. However, there are two matters that are very much our concern: freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the more general issue of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

Turkey and religious discrimination

As RightsInfo points out, of the countries with the most cases going to full judgment between 1959 and 2014 Turkey had much the worst record, with 17 per cent of the total cases: 3,095, as opposed to 513 for the UK.

In particular, Turkey has been found to have committed a string of Article 9 violations, mostly in respect of the Alevi community, for example:

  • Hasan and Eylem Zengin [2007] ECHR 787 and Mansur Yalçın & Ors [2014] ECHR 938 (about the content of mandatory courses on religious culture and ethics in schools);
  • Ahmet Arslan & Ors [2010] ECHR 2260 (in which members of a Muslim minority religious group had been sentenced, initially, to two months’ imprisonment for wearing their distinctive religious dress in public other than for a religious ceremony);
  • Güler and Uğur [2014] ECHR 1342 (about the conviction of two Kurds under the anti-terrorism laws for taking part in a memorial service [mevlut] for three members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party killed by the security forces);
  • Cumhuriyetçi Eğitim ve Kültür Merkezi Vakfi [2014] ECHR 1346 (about discrimination against Alevi places of worship in the supply of free electricity); and, most recently,
  • İzzetin Doğan & Ors [2016] ECHR 387 (about discrimination against Alevis by the Religious Affairs Department).

And that is only a few instances. Turkey’s record on conscientious objection to military service is little better: see, most recently, Enver Aydemir [2016] ECHR 490.

Constitutional issues and judicial independence

Article 2 of the Constitution declares that the Republic of Turkey is

“a democratic, secular and social state [demokratik, lâik ve sosyal] governed by [the] rule of law, within the notions of public peace, national solidarity and justice, respecting human rights, loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, and based on the fundamental tenets set forth in the preamble.”

The Turkish Army has traditionally seen itself as the guarantor of Kemal Atatürk’s secularist Constitution. It has intervened on several previous occasions; but once what the senior officers regard as “order” has been restored, it has gone back to barracks. Clearly, there is a current faction within the Army that regards President Erdoğan as a threat to Atatürkist values and has reacted accordingly.

Military intervention in civil government is extremely dangerous and only very rarely justifiable; and it is noteworthy that the failed coup was disowned collectively by the ruling Justice and Development Party, the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the People’s Democratic Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, who issued a joint declaration  “strongly condemning the coup attempt”.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of the failed coup some 2,700 judges were dismissed and many arrested, including two members of the Constitutional Court and ten members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. Whatever else one may think of recent events, arresting members of Turkey’s senior judiciary appears to sit uncomfortably with judicial independence and the rule of law. The suspicion must be that those arrested may have simply got across the President – and the arrests have attracted critical comment both from the four Bars of England & Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland and from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary.

Reactions to the coup and its aftermath 

European politicians and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, have called on Turkey to respect the rule of law amid a purge of state institutions in the aftermath of the failed coup. At a meeting between the Secretary of State and the EU’s 28 foreign ministers, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that the group intended to send a strong message to President Erdoğan:

“We call for the full observance of Turkey’s constitutional order and we as the European Union stress the importance of the rule of law. We need to have Turkey respect democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

President Erdoğan has also called for the restoration of the death penalty, forbidden by Article 2 ECHR and Article 1 of Protocol 6  – which Turkey has signed and ratified – except in time of war; and Federica Mogherini has been widely reported as declaring: “Let me be very clear on one thing … No country can become an EU member state if it introduces [the] death penalty,”

Kerry himself told a subsequent news briefing:

“We … urge the Government of Turkey to uphold the highest standards of respect for the nation’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. We will certainly support bringing the perpetrators of the coup to justice but we also caution against a reach that goes well beyond that.”

He added that Turkey’s membership of NATO could be jeopardised if it abandoned democratic principles and the rule of law in a post-coup crackdown: “NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy.” To which one might also add, assuming that Turkey hopes to join it in the foreseeable future, so has the European Union.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Turkey, the rule of law and freedom of religion" in Law & Religion UK, 19 July 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/07/19/turkey-the-rule-of-law-and-freedom-of-religion/

5 thoughts on “Turkey, the rule of law and freedom of religion

  1. Turkey’s “secular” constitution was seriously flawed even before the failed coup d’état: see Turkey’s flawed secularism.

    Now there is little chance of true secularism in that nation. The mass dismissals of university and school staff are clearing the way for a totally religious education system (Ruth Kelly and Michael Gove must be very envious) and the courts no doubt will be operated by Sunni clerics following the removal of the pre-coup judiciary. Sharia Law cannot be far away.

  2. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 24th July | Law & Religion UK

  3. Pingback: Turkey – Religion and State Observatory Valencia

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