The European Union has strongly criticized the way the Turkish government handled allegations of corruption in December 2013, expressing concerns about the independence of the judiciary and increased pressure on the media.
In its annual progress report released on Wednesday, the EU said “the response of the government following allegations of corruption in December 2013 has given rise to serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers.”
“The widespread reassignments and dismissals of police officers, judges and prosecutors, despite the government’s claim that these were not linked to the anti-corruption case, have impacted on the effective functioning of the relevant institutions, and raise questions as to the way procedures were used to formalise these,” the report added.
The EU underlined that “it is crucial that the investigations into corruption allegations are properly conducted in full transparency and the operational capabilities of the judiciary and the police are assured.”
The EU also did not find the government‘s response to the corruption investigations calling them a “judicial coup” staged by the members of the Hizmet movement to be credible. Rather, the report described it as “interfering of the executive into the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary” and noted that this has “raised serious concerns.” The Hizmet movement is a civil society movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
“This led to further polarisation of the political climate,” the report warned.
On the corruption investigations, the EU said “the handling of these allegations of corruption raised serious concerns that allegations of wrongdoing would not be addressed in a non-discriminatory, transparent and impartial manner.”
It said, “Prosecutors involved in the December 2013 anti-corruption investigations were reassigned or removed. The HSYK launched disciplinary and criminal investigations against a number of them. A large number of police officers were removed, reassigned, or even detained.”
The EU further took note of the massive reshuffle in the civil service after the corruption investigation was exposed that incriminated then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and several close associates.
“There was significant concern that removals and re-assignments of civil servants would threaten the efficiency of public administration and further politicise it,” the report stated.
Press freedom worries
The report also addressed the growing woes related to press freedom in Turkey, a country that was described as “a strategic partner for the EU,” recalling government attempts to ban access to social media sites including YouTube and Twitter that were later overturned by the Constitutional Court.
It said pressure on the press in Turkey leads to a widespread self-censorship, reflecting a restrictive approach to freedom of expression.
The EU took note of legislation further limiting freedom of expression, including on the Internet. It said “the effective exercise of this freedom, and press freedom, was restricted in practice.”
It stated that website bans of disproportionate scope and duration continued in Turkey. “In August, it was reported that more than 50,000 sites were not accessible in Turkey, only 6,000 of which had been banned by court order,” the report noted.
“Intimidating statements by politicians and cases launched against critical journalists, combined with the ownership structure of the media sector, led to widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists, as well as the sacking of journalists,” the report explained.
It also said the exercise of freedom of assembly remains limited.
“Turkish legislation and its implementation concerning the right to assembly and intervention by law enforcement officers will need to be brought in line with European standards,” the report recommended.
The EU repeated its earlier suggestion of engaging in a dialogue across the political spectrum and society, stressing that this should be a priority for Turkey.
It also emphasized the importance of reinvigorating the rule of law reform efforts, paying particular attention to the respect of fundamental rights in law and in practice.
Stressing that the EU should remain an important anchor for Turkey’s economic and political reforms, the report stated that it is in the interests of both Turkey and the EU that the opening benchmarks for Chapter 23 of the EU acquis on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security are defined as soon as possible, leading to the opening of negotiations on these two chapters.
“Turkey can accelerate the pace of negotiations by advancing in the fulfilment of the benchmarks, meeting the requirements of the negotiating framework and by respecting its contractual obligations towards the EU. This could provide a significant boost to the negotiation process,” it explained.
The EU pointed out that there have been very serious developments in the region, in particular in Syria and Iraq, and said that makes cooperation on foreign policy issues even more crucial.
“Turkey’s strategic location also underlines the importance of further cooperation in the areas of migration policy and energy security. The value of such cooperation is even clearer in light of the considerable challenges posed by recent developments in our joint neighbourhood, including the Ukraine crisis,” the report highlighted.
It said “active and credible accession negotiations provide the most suitable framework for exploiting the full potential of EU-Turkey relations,” ruling out any alternative procedures with Turkey. It described the accession process as an important tool to promote “EU-related reforms” as well as providing “an important basis for intensifying dialogue on foreign policy and security issues and for strengthening economic competitiveness and trade opportunities.
“It [accession talks] also helps increase cooperation in the field of energy and on justice and home affairs, including visa/migration policy/readmission,” the EU added.
The EU emphasized that “accession negotiations need to regain momentum, respecting the EU’s commitments and the established conditionality.”
Parliamentary oversight role curbed
The EU also criticized the wide scope of parliamentary immunity in relation to the corruption charges and said that the parliamentary investigation committee set up in May to probe the charges leveled against former ministers was hampered by the obstructionist tactics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). It noted that nine lawmakers had resigned from the AK party in protest of the government’s handling of the corruption allegations and the closing of dershanes, private preparatory schools for nationally administered exams.
It also noted that “Parliament’s ability to perform its key functions of law-making and oversight of the executive were hampered by a persistent lack of dialogue and a lack of a will to compromise among political parties.”
“The pattern of insufficient preparation and consultation before adopting key legislation continued. Government-and AKP-sponsored legislation amending laws on the internet, the judiciary, the closure of Dershanes and on the National Intelligence Service were adopted without proper parliamentary debate or adequate consultation of stakeholders and civil society,” the report added.
Stressing that the work of Parliament is not fully aligned with European standards, the EU said: “An inclusive and consultative approach to law-making remains the exception rather than the rule. The transparency of the legislative process and consultations with all relevant stakeholders needs to become a regular practice. Political polarisation and a lack of readiness on the part of the government and opposition to work towards consensus on key reforms continued to affect the functioning of parliament.”