ANKARA, Nov 10 (Reuters) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched into a simmering legal crisis on Friday, calling for a new constitution to resolve an unprecedented clash between two of the country’s highest courts, as opponents demonstrated in Ankara.
The comments fueled a debate over the rule of law that erupted on Wednesday when the Court of Cassation Appeal filed a criminal complaint against judges of the Constitutional Court, who ruled last month that imprisoned parliamentarian Can Atalay should to be freed.
In a twist that critics said highlighted the degraded state of Turkey’s legal system, the highest appeals court said the Constitutional Court’s decision was unconstitutional. Legal experts say it is difficult to predict the next steps to resolve the unprecedented conflict between the two courts.
“Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court has made many consecutive errors at this stage, which seriously saddens us,” Erdogan told reporters on a flight back from Uzbekistan, according to a text released by his office on Friday.
The Turkish bar association and the main opposition party, the CHP, denounced the appeal court’s decision as an “attempted coup d’état” and hundreds of members demonstrated, many of them lawyers in legal robes. , chanting “justice” in the streets of the capital on Friday.
They walked more than 10 km from the Ankara courthouse to the Ahlatlibel district, where the Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation sit side by side.
Main opposition leader Ozgur Ozel said during the march that the latest legal crisis was “an attempt by Erdogan to revise the constitutional order.”
“The president, who derives his power from the constitution, supports the actions of the Court of Cassation ignoring the constitution,” Ozel said, urging Erdogan to protect the constitution.
In a rare move, the Court of Cassation issued a statement on the conflict on Friday evening, accusing the Constitutional Court of dragging the judicial system into chaos with its rulings on individual petitions.
“The Court of Cassation is ready to provide the necessary support for the work on legal and constitutional (amendments) in order to eliminate the problems posed by the implementation of individual petitions,” he said.
“DEGRADATION OF THE RULE OF LAW”
In comments later at a ceremony in Ankara, Erdogan took a more moderate tone on the crisis, saying he was not siding with any party to the conflict and was taking on the role of arbiter.
Erdogan also said the dispute between the two highest courts showed the need for a new constitution, reflecting his long-standing position that parliament should take up the issue next year.
The latest crisis showed that Erdogan wants “more control over Turkey’s justice system”, according to Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based political analyst.
“His preference is to do things according to the Constitution. That is why he amended the current Constitution in 2010 and 2017 and is now talking about a completely new one,” he said.
Atalay, 47, was sentenced to 18 years in prison last year after being convicted of trying to overthrow the government by organizing nationwide protests in 2013, alongside Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and six other people.
All defendants have denied accusations about the protests, which they say developed spontaneously, amid the biggest popular challenge to Erdogan in more than two decades in power.
Legal experts said such a crisis between the country’s two most important courts was unprecedented and highlighted concerns that the judiciary had bowed to Erdogan’s will.
This coincided with the European Commission’s publication of an annual report on Turkey’s long-stalled EU bid, in which it highlighted a “serious setback” in democratic standards, rule of law and judicial independence.
“The reaction of the Court of Cassation… is an open and combative attack on the Constitutional Court,” said Bertil Oder, professor of constitutional law at Koc University.
“Such criminalization of constitutional judges…promotes the degradation of the rule of law in Turkey.”
Sule Ozsoy Boyunsuz, a constitutional law professor at Galatasaray University, said the Court of Cassation had ignored the Constitution in its Atalay ruling.
“If Atalay is removed from his seat, the national will will be usurped. Turkey will become more authoritarian and pressures will intensify.”
This legal conflict comes at a time when Turkey is seeking to woo foreign investors after a shift in its economic policy towards greater orthodoxy since Erdogan’s narrow victory in May elections. Some analysts say this problem could discourage foreign direct investment.
“A deterioration in Turkey’s rule of law prospects would also hamper its efforts to re-attract Western investment to support economic rebalancing efforts,” said Emre Peker of Eurasia Group.
Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Burcu Karakas and Huseyin Hayatsever; Written by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and David Evans
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