CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – In the wake of the coup attempt, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan can hardly be blamed for purging the military. But firing 2,745 judges without any investigation or demonstrated connection to the coup is another matter. The action threatens the rule of law in Turkey going forward. And the way it was done signals some of the methods Erdogan can be expected to use in the weeks and months ahead.
Turkey is a constitutional democracy. If it sounds strange to you that the head of state could just fire judicial officials, your legal instincts are correct. Erdogan lacks that constitutional power — and technically, he didn’t exercise it.
The firing of the judges, which was reported on Saturday, just hours after the coup was put down, was the work of an entity called the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. (The Turkish acronym is HSYK). The council is the entity with the constitutional responsibility for supervising and disciplining members of the legal system in Turkey.
Until 2010, the council had just seven members, appointed by the country’s highest appellate court and its council of state. The 2010 constitutional referendum, proposed by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and adopted by a vote of roughly 58 percent to 42 percent, expanded the Council to 22 members and broadened the appointment process. The increased membership and new selection criteria enabled Erdogan’s party to take control of the council.
That control was on display in the council’s rapid response to the coup. Not only did the council fire the judges; it also reportedly fired as many as 10 members of the council itself. If accurate, that would mean that 12 of the 22 members fired the other 10.
On the council’s website, the only indication of the weekend’s happenings is a brief announcement in Turkish suspending leave for all judges — presumably because the judiciary will now be extremely shorthanded.
Given the speed with which all this occurred, there was obviously no investigation to see if the fired judges were part of the coup attempt. Indeed, unlike some members of the armed forces, judges took no visible role in the coup. There were no public legal pronouncements issued in connection with it.
So what criterion was used to fire the judges? The most likely answer is that those fired were on a pre-existing enemies list created by the AKP. That list almost certainly consisted of judges thought to be connected to the Gulen movement, a religiously inspired order that teaches a peaceful, service-oriented version of Islam. Its leader, Fethullah Gulen, was on good terms with Erdogan and his regime until 2013. Since then, the split between the Pennsylvania-based Gulen and the government has become extreme, marked by deep hatred and mutual paranoia.
Erdogan and his party are blaming the coup attempt on Gulen sympathizers. Whether this is true or not is difficult to determine from the outside, and is likely to remain so. Gulen himself denied any connection to the coup. But his denial included praise for the supposedly peaceful coup participants. That hinted that Gulen might believe they actually thought of themselves as his followers.
Regardless of whether the coup plotters were connected to Gulen, summarily firing judges is about the worst thing that could be imagined for the rule of law. The problem isn’t only that all remaining judges are now presumably AKP loyalists, or that any independent-minded judge who might remain is now on notice that the price of disloyalty might be firing. The problem is deeper, because firing judges signals to the entire population that the legal system is now subject to partisan discipline.
Turkey under the AKP has never been perfectly democratic. In recent years especially, Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian. But the courts have resisted Erdogan’s dominance more than most other public institutions — until now. A purged judiciary can be expected to function as a rubber stamp.
All this matters internationally as well as domestically. Turkey has been enmeshed in complex negotiations with the European Union in which the country has sought concessions, including visa-free entry to Europe for its citizens, in exchange for containing and keeping millions of Syrian refugees. The negotiations have stumbled over the question of proposed anti-terror laws in Turkey that European leaders deemed insufficiently democratic.
But nothing in those proposed laws came close to undercutting Turkey’s justice system like the judicial purge does. If they want to be consistent, European leaders should insist on the reinstatement of the fired judges, or at least case-by-case adjudication of their alleged wrongdoing. The United States should make similar demands on its NATO ally. The future of the rule of law in Turkey lies in the balance.
Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, specializes in constitutional studies, with particular emphasis on the relationship between law and religion. His books include “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem — and What We Should Do About It.”
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