A debate about a civilian coup flared last week when Professor Mehmet Altan, an academic and writer, claimed that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had staged a civilian coup to cover up claims of corruption and bribery. According to the professor, the prime minister staged a coup by ignoring the principle of the separation of powers and preventing public prosecutors from carrying out the corruption investigation -- in other words, putting the judiciary under the control of the executive.
The sons of two former ministers are among 24 high-profile names, including some government officials and businesspeople, who were arrested in mid-December on corruption and bribery charges as part of the investigation.
When the corruption investigation erupted, the prime minister sought to discredit the investigation by calling it a “foreign plot” and “an attempt to damage the government made by a parallel state nested within the state.” He immediately ordered the removal of hundreds of police officers who contributed to the probe. The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) initiated an investigation into four prosecutors involved in the corruption probe and two of the prosecutors were removed from the case. In addition, the government issued a proposal to restructure the HSYK. If adopted, the bill will give the government a tighter grip on the judiciary, according to legal experts.
Furthermore, in another incident in late December, a number of police officers who pursued and stopped a truck in the southern province of Hatay in early January on the suspicion that it was an arms shipment were removed from their duties. A prosecutor who wanted to search the truck was prevented from doing so and he subsequently handed the case over to another prosecutor in protest of the intervention in his investigation.
According to Altan, all those developments have precluded the judiciary and the police force from functioning independently. “Turkey is being governed by a coup government that has openly been defying the Constitution since Dec. 17 [when the corruption investigation became public],” he noted. He also said that members of the government will be tried some day for “staging a coup in order to prevent the judiciary from functioning.”
Claims of a civilian coup also emerged in late December after the government made an overnight change in regulations governing “judicial police” -- law enforcement officers operating under the supervision of the judiciary. According to the amendment, police officers were required to report their activities to their superior officers within the police department and to other government officials in addition to the prosecutors that supervise them in criminal investigations. The amendment was harshly criticized by opposition parties and legal experts as it would prevent prosecutors and the police from conducting independent investigations. The Council of State overturned the amendment on Dec. 27.
A retired public prosecutor who served on the Supreme Court of Appeals, Ahmet Gündel, said that the government's plans to restructure the HSYK are part of a “very important process” that will lead to the country being controlled by a single power, namely the government. The prosecutor noted that unauthorized and unchecked control of the government over the country will bring with it “major danger and risk,” including the abolition of the principle of the separation of powers. “If the executive seizes control of the judiciary and the legislative, this means that the greatest disaster has occurred,” he added. The prosecutor was implying a government shift from a democratic system toward oligarchy.
Gündel also said he does not think that the opposition parties and civil society will remain silent in the face of the AK Party's plans to restructure the HSYK and allow the justice minister to dominate the board. “But the [AK] party seems determined to pass the bill in Parliament despite protests. However, even if the bill is passed, this does not mean that everything is over,” he said, and added that he expects the opposition parties to take the law to the Constitutional Court for annulment. “I believe the Constitutional Court will show the necessary sensitivity when discussing whether or not to annul this law aimed at ending judicial independence,” added the prosecutor.
The legislation forwarded to the parliament speaker's office by the AK Party last week allows the undersecretary of the justice minister to be elected as chairman of the HSYK. The bill also mandates that the board will no longer have the authority to pass decrees and circulars. Instead, the justice minister will be entitled to pass decrees and circulars on behalf of the HSYK. Furthermore, the board will be stripped of its authority to decide to launch investigations of HSYK members. This authority is again passed to the justice minister.
The bill has drawn the ire of legal experts and jurists amid mounting concerns over the gradual disappearance of the separation of judicial and executive powers and the ruling AK Party's firm position seeking to make the judiciary subservient to the government.
Engin Altay, parliamentary deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), said the prime minister is acting with a mindset of “establishing his own dictatorship” and becoming the “single most powerful man” in the country. According to Altay, the separation of powers stands on three separate legs and the planned changes to the HSYK structure are aimed at damaging one of these legs -- the judiciary. “If one of these legs is damaged, the separation of powers will no longer work. And this will lead to the establishment of a new regime. This regime is called an oligarchy,” he said, and added that the prime minister wants to govern Turkey on his own like an emperor.
Hasan Cemal, a prominent journalist, believes Prime Minister Erdoğan established a “civilian tutelage” since the corruption investigation was revealed and he said that the government acts like a court of law and sought to discredit the investigation as an “ugly plot” against the AK Party. In a column he wrote on Dec. 27, Cemal said the prime minister wants people to close their eyes to his “coup-like activities” and focus instead on the activities of the Hizmet movement, inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
Erdoğan may believe that the corruption investigation was orchestrated by a “parallel state” and a “gang within the state,” a veiled reference to the Hizmet movement. But according to Cemal, Erdoğan's claims that the corruption investigation was orchestrated by the Hizmet movement insult the public's intelligence. “[Prime minister], do not insult our intelligence any longer,” he said.