Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is promising heaven to a country too distant for even purgatory. He seems totally cut off from the Turkish facts of life. Listening to him, one might think he is the Prime Minister of a country that ranks in the top 10 in press freedoms. Unfortunately, his country ranks 149th.
In his weekly speech to the ruling AKP party group in parliament, on February 10, Davutoglu said, "We are marching toward a brand new Turkey where no one is alienated because of his faith, opinion, customs, sect or ethnicity. This new Turkey will be brotherhood, equal citizenship and freedom." Thundering applause from deputies and party fans.
Outside the parliament building, Turkey looked much different.
On the same day as Davutoglu spoke of the rule of law in parliament, Turkey's two top judges described an entirely different judiciary. Both judges spoke on the day of their retirement.
Judge Ali Alkan, president of the Court of Appeals, was extremely sharp when he told of how the Turkish judges made rulings: "Those who make verdicts upon expectations [of promotion] and fear [of misfortune due to governmental interference] should take off their cloaks."
Alkan was saying what every Turk knew: Judges often announce verdicts in expectation of a government boost for a brighter career, or out of fear of the opposite.
On the same day, Turkey's top judge was also retiring, after a year of political tensions with the government. Hasim Kilic, president of the Constitutional Court, was the regime's favorite jurist. In 2007, he was appointed the country's top judge by former President Abdullah Gul, one of the founders of Davutoglu's Justice and Development Party (AKP). Kilic, a conservative, as is the entire house of AKP, defended a controversial move by the party to remove the campus ban on the Islamic headscarf and won hearts and minds among the AKP's leaders. He also voted, in a critical 2008 trial, against the closure of the AKP after it was charged with undermining Turkey's secular constitution. He was the darling of Turkish Islamists and a bête noire for secular Turks.
In the past year, however, in several political cases involving civil liberties, Kilic voted in favor of freedoms, angering his former allies in the conservative camp. When the parliamentary opposition brought to the Constitutional Court a plea for the removal of the legal threshold of 10% for parliamentary representation (the highest in Europe), all eyes turned to Kilic in expectation of a removal or a reduction. Before Turkey's Supreme Court announced its verdict (it did not remove or reduce the threshold), a senior AKP figure even threatened "not to recognize the supreme court's verdict if it ruled against the threshold." Burhan Kuzu, chairman of the parliament's constitutional committee, in December said, "We will never implement such a ruling ... This would bring us to the point of questioning whether we should or should not have a constitutional court."
Pro-government media slammed Kilic; some pundits claimed the judge was a Gulenist and plotting a "coup d'état against the government." Gulenists, named after the influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, now in self-exile in the United States, were the AKP's staunchest allies before turning into its nemesis in 2013, after a fight about sharing power.
In his February 10 speech to mark his departure as Turkey's top judge, Kilic vowed to stay out of politics and offered a realistic portrayal of the Turkish judiciary. Kilic warned that Turkey's judiciary could become an "instrument of revenge" in the hands of political authorities, after government-backed candidates strengthened their grip on key courts. He also stated that:
"People should express their opinions. Freedom of expression is very important. ... Go to the remotest corner of the country and you will see that the residents there will know which judge or prosecutor comes close to which political ideology. We cannot go on with a judiciary as such. ... Those who benefited from my vote regarding fundamental rights and freedoms have called me a coup-maker."
Hasim Kilic, the recently retired President of Turkey's Constitutional Court, is shown here speaking in 2014. (Image source: Cihan video screenshot)
Understandably, Judge Kilic is a heartbroken man. He became a victim to his belief that Turkey's Islamists were defending civil liberties when they advocated more rights for the pious. He was too late in understanding that they were in fact defending the rights of Islamist Turks only.
On the same day as Prime Minister Davutoglu spoke of a country priding itself on equal citizenship, brotherhood and freedom, new data showed that Turkey had filed over five times more content removal requests with Twitter than any other country in the second half of 2014. Twitter's transparency report showed that between July and December, Turkey filed 477 content removal requests, an increase of more than 150% compared to the first six months of 2014.
It could be fun to live in the Turkey depicted by Davutoglu. The real Turkey boasts the exact opposite features: inequality before the law; deep polarization, systematic restrictions on civil liberties and, in the words of a senior government minister, "hatred".
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.