Nesrin Şimşek remembers in vivid detail the moment she was released from prison and was reunited with her infant son. “I cried for a month after I saw my baby again,” recalled the former Turkish judge. “He had given up breastfeeding while I was in jail, and in every dream I saw my child, and I was trying to give him milk.”
Şimşek (not her real name) was taken with her husband from their home on the Black Sea four days after the coup attempt in the country in 2016. She was released two months later to care for her boy. Her husband, a former prosecutor, has now been in jail for nearly a year without trial. Both are still under investigation.
Thousands of Turks have embarked on a a 280-mile March for Justice, starting in Ankara on 15 June – to protest against the dismantling of Turkey’s judiciary – which they hope will culminate in a massive opposition rally in Istanbul’s Maltepe district on Sunday.
The case of the Şimşeks mirrors that of hundreds of former prosecutors and judges who have been detained or dismissed without formal charges.
Interviews with former members of the judiciary and their families, legal experts, defence counsels and senior lawmakers, reveal a broad and systematic attempt at intimidating and reshaping Turkey’s judicial branch in an effort to further consolidate power in the hands of the ruling AKP party and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The crippling of Turkey’s justice system, experts say, undermines a key pillar of democracy in a nation still reeling from coup attempt last year, and political polarisation that has shown little sign of abating.
“It is horrible. Judges are waiting to hear from the [presidential] palace, and they think the harsher the punishment [the judges hand down], the higher up they will go,” said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s party (CHP), who is leading the march. “This is our main cause.”
Tens of thousands of people have been arrested or dismissed from their jobs in the civil service, military, judiciary, academia and media, in a broad crackdown that the government says is aimed at followers of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher whose movement is widely believed to have been behind the coup attempt last July.
But that purge has gone beyond the alleged perpetrators to encompass dissidents of all stripes, including senior opposition lawmakers.
Nearly a quarter of all Turkish judges, about 4,000 people, have been either dismissed or arrested since the coup attempt. The government’s hold over the judiciary has tightened in the aftermath of a constitutional referendum in April that expanded the powers of the president, allowing him and a parliament controlled by the AKP to appoint all members of the high council of judges and prosecutors (HSYK), a body with broad authority to appoint, promote, discipline and dismiss the nation’s judges.
“The proposed amendments weaken, instead of strengthen the Turkish judiciary,” the Venice commission, a European body tasked with providing legal opinion to states, said in a report before the referendum. “The proposed constitutional amendments would introduce in Turkey a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one.”
Few dispute that the Gülenists, a vast grassroots network, had infiltrated the judiciary. They worked hand in hand with the AKP government in the 2000s in the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, when senior members of the military were accused of planning to overthrow the elected government. Those investigations are now largely discredited as having relied on fabricated evidence.
The final break occurred in 2013 when Gülenists tried to launch an investigation into corruption in Erdoğan’s inner circle, a move that was branded a “judicial coup”.
After last year’s putsch, the government said it had been tricked by its former allies, and maintains that those purged are part of the movement.
But the scale of the purge, and apparent lack of evidence or indictments against many of the judges who have been detained, has prompted critics to accuse the president and his party of attempting to control an independent branch of government to cement their hold on the country.
Those who have been detained say they were repeatedly questioned in the initial investigation about whether they voted for government-approved candidates in past HSYK elections, for example.
Defence lawyers say much of the evidence against their clients is classified, and that some of it relies on anonymised confessions of suspected members of the Gülen network in the judiciary.
Planned route of Ankara to Istanbul protest march
But even those confessions have little credibility. The head of HSYK and one of the most senior judges in the country, Mehmet Yılmaz, suggested late last year that he might consider reinstating judges giving damaging confessions about the Gülenist network, but admittedin a later interview that he had said so to entrap them.
“I made that statement solely to encourage confessions and I have been very successful, because, when there was not even one confessor then, there has been a boom following that statement,” he told the news agency Habertürk. “Thanks to over 200 confessors, we have obtained evidence about 2,400 judges and prosecutors to prove their membership to [the Gülenists].” Yılmaz declined a request for an interview.
Öykü Didem Aydın, one of two Turks on the Venice commission and a defence lawyer for some imprisoned judges, said: “Of course there are Gülenists and they are an insidious organisation that should be purged, but it should be done in a logical, scientific, proper, judicial way. The circle is so wide, I’m calling it a fishing expedition.”
Didem represents Murat Arslan, a former judge and head of the judges and prosecutors association (Yarsav), an influential NGO made up of Turkish judges that was dissolved after the coup attempt and has often been critical of the government.
Arslan has been held since October in a crowded cell, but there is no indictment against him and the only pieces of evidence his lawyer has access to are the interrogation notes, claims that there were Gülenists in his social circles, and a confession by an anonymous source who appears in other cases.
Some of the other causes for suspicion for detained judges include speaking foreign languages or going in their youth to one of the dershanes, the private schools that were often sponsored by the Gülenists.
One former judge who faced that accusation said it was absurd, partly because the government had allowed those schools to operate, and because a senior minister had gone to the same school attended by the judge.
The judge, who requested anonymity, said: “We were accused of being involved in a coup, so we expected questions like – where were the weapons? The only questions were about our background and they were particularly interested in which candidates we voted for in the HSYK elections in 2014.”
There are limited avenues for appeal for dismissed judges. A commission created to address such cases has not begun its work and now has a heavy backlog. Its existence means that those who wish to challenge the government’s state of emergency decrees have not exhausted all domestic options, and therefore cannot appeal to the European court of human rights.
To make up for the shortage in judges, the government waived some prerequisites previously forming part of the examinations to enter the service. Of 900 new judges recruited in April, the opposition claims that 800 have ties to the AKP.
“The main intention of the AKP is to be able to staff the judiciary, to fill all the available positions with their partisans,” said Barış Yarkadaş, an opposition MP who uncovered the ties of judicial nominees to the ruling party, and believes the ruling party wants to control the judiciary to head off future corruption probes. “Turkish justice has been slaughtered and left in darkness. The right of citizens to be tried fairly has been eliminated.”
Judges have also been subject to widespread intimidation by the media, which has been largely brought under the control of the AKP and its proxies after a broad crackdown on dissident press.
Pro-AKP media harshly criticised the courts after they ordered the release of Atilla Taş, a pop singer who was accused of membership of the Gülen network, a decision that was reversed shortly afterwards. The opposition and defence lawyers say judges are fearful of ordering the release of detainees lest they be investigated themselves.
The upheaval that has gripped the judiciary and the warnings by international observers that the ruling party was solidifying its hold on the third branch of government, has led to criticism from abroad, with former allies in the EU criticising what they see as Turkey’s descent towards authoritarian rule.
The HSYK has been suspended from a European judicial observer body because, it said, the board was no longer independent. Talks about Turkey’s accession to membership of the EU are frozen and unlikely to resume any time soon.
Meanwhile, many families of detained judges and prosecutors have been left in poverty by the imprisonment of their breadwinners.
Some female judges who have young children have been released out of compassion, but they remain under investigation, ostracised by members of society who are convinced that they are guilty, and without job prospects. Some declined interview requests for fear of government reprisals.
“We were like a power family,” said the daughter of two judges who were incarcerated after the coup, and remain there without indictments. She has had to subsist by sleeping on the couches of friends and relatives.
A law student herself, she said she now had little faith in the country’s institutions and the rule of law, but still wanted to work as a lawyer because “somebody has to work for human rights and justice”. She said: “My father always told me, we are judges, [not politicians]. We’ve only hugged once in the last two months.”