“In fact, our country is under the sway of fear to a large extent. Since its foundation, including the periods when it was run by the military, it did not witness a period of such fear. People coming to visit me are asking, ‘Is this place bugged?’” Suleyman Demirel who has left his mark in Turkish politics for more than 40 years serving both as president and prime minister said addressing a meeting of businessmen in Antalya, last week.
The issue was tapping of telephones and other electronic communications between the citizens of Turkey. The problem reached scandal proportions with revelations that judges, prosecutors and even Turkey’s Supreme Court was being bugged.
It all began in July 2005 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan passed amendments to the laws governing the functioning of the police, intelligence services and the gendarmerie allowing them to tap telephone conversations without a court order. The same amendment also set up a unit called Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) that was given the task of overseeing the wire tapping both in telephone and internet connections.
Since then, telephone conversations and internet mails intercepted by the authorities have been added to the political arsenal of the struggle between the government and the opposition in Turkey. However, the revelations last week that a number of judges and prosecutors, including those serving on Turkey’s Supreme Court have also fallen victim to official eavesdropping led the judicial circles ask the question whether Turkey is heading towards an atmosphere of fear even among the high judges so that they are put under pressure preventing them from functioning properly.
Since the law was passed, media organs supporting the Erdogan government regularly printed the contents of telephone conversations leaked to them by unknown sources, between defendants of the controversial Ergenekon trial where retired generals, professors, journalists and also some dark figures known to have involved in “deep state” activities in the past stand trial for setting up an “armed terrorist organization” to overthrow the elected government. The trial has been criticized for its colossal amount of evidence running into tens of thousands of pages and the incongruity of more than 300 defendants all coming from different walks of life.
Critics of the case claimed that the government has been using it to silence civil opposition in the country. But last week the issue took a menacing turn when it was revealed that the telephones of Aykut Cengiz Engin, the Chief Prosecutor of Istanbul who is supposedly the superior of the three prosecutors handling the Ergenekon case was also monitored. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin admitted that Engin has been under electronic surveillance since September 2008. According to Turkish media reports, the prosecutors of the Ergenekon case suspected that Engin might have connections with the defendants and asked the Justice Ministry to bug his telephones.
The event coincided with Justice Ministry’s move to expel a judge who ruled that President Abdullah Gul should stand trial for an embezzlement case popularly known as “The lost trillion” dating back to 1998. When the Constitutional Court decided to close down the Welfare Party (RP), it demanded that it should return the money that the treasury donates to all political parties during election time. Gul was then one of the deputy chairmen of RP headed by former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan. The money never came back.
Justice Ministry is also demanding the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors to expel Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu, the President of the Association of Judges and Prosecutors (YARSAV), a non-governmental professional organization. Eminagaoglu has been quite outspoken against the government’s legislative activities concerning the judiciary in Turkey. He was voted out of his post during the YARSAV Congress last weekend.
However, the Justice Ministry does not wield authority to expel judges and prosecutors from the profession. Such decisions come under the authority of Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors which was a body completely independent of the government before 1980 but the military junta amended the law regulating it and made the Justice Minister and his counselor members of the board; a highly criticized decision.
Penal Court Judge Omer Kacmaz who made the ruling against President Gul also ordered a search at the offices of Telecommunications Directorate (TIB). The search on November 5 revealed that telephones of the Supreme Court were also tagged for tapping.
Kacmaz ordered the search on grounds that TIB has been carrying out illegal wire tapping and Hayri Keskin, the judge who headed the team that searched the offices filed a complaint against Mustafa Akar, the head of TIB’s legal department for trying to obstruct the investigation.
The 1995 law gave the sole authority to appoint the chief of TIB and handpicking members of control commissions to Prime Minister Erdogan. In January this year the Constitutional Court repealed these terms of the legislation. But since the parliament did not pass any new legislation to replace them, Erdogan can still use his authority.
Fikret Ilkiz, a lawyer specializing in media jurisdiction says the entire law is unconstitutional and should have been repealed completely. “This measure has taken an important part of legal procedure like wire tapping outside judicial control. No authority should have the power to tap telephone conversations before obtaining a ruling from an appropriate judge,” said Ilkiz.
The President of the Supreme Court Hasan Gerceker demanded an explanation from the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s office regarding tapping of the telephones at the high court. “If our telephones have been tapped by court order, this is a grim situation. Because no court can ask for the tapping of Supreme Court’s telephones,” said Gerceker.
Eminagaoglu’s office is at the Supreme Court Building and according to press reports TIB tried to tap his phone. Fethi Simsek, the head of TIB admitted that but said, “they could not tap it because of the switchboard that did not give access.”
Justice Ministry in a written statement claimed that the legal action taken against both Kacmaz and Eminagaoglu had nothing with wire tapping. The statement said the ministry’s inspectors found irregularities in professional practices and violations of discipline by the two.
President Gul stepped in as the telephone tapping crisis took on dimensions that would undermine the entire judicial system and invited Justice Minister Ergin and Chief Judge Gerceker separately to the Presidential Residence Cankaya. No official statement came from Cankaya after the meetings.
“Legislation concerning this practice should be changed. Authorization of inspectors who are directly responsible to the justice minister for tapping telephones is not an acceptable practice; because such a practice shuns independent prosecutors. The justice ministry refuses to submit court rulings that contradict law to the Supreme Court. This is unacceptable,” Chief Judge Gerceker declared after his meeting with Gul.
The whole affair shows that the dichotomy in Turkey has now spilled over to the judiciary system where pro-government judges and prosecutors battling with their opponents using all the means possible, while the government is talking about “reforming the justice system;” whether this reform’s objective is to take the whole jurisdiction under government control remains to be seen.
Erdogan is also tapped
But bugging is a two-way street. With today’s technology telephone tapping cannot be the exclusive prerogative of those in power. The backlash came from weekly Aydinlik magazine which is the mouthpiece of Workers Party (IP) the leader of which, Dogu Perincek is in prison as one of the defendants of the Ergenekon case.
The magazine published verbatim Erdogan’s telephone conversations with Mehmet Ali Talat, then the rival of Turkish Cypriot leader RaufDenktas in 2004, and with his close friend, businessman Remzi Gur, the owner of Ramsey ready-wear company based in London.
The 2004 telephone chat with Talat indicated that how the two were trying to get rid of Denktas before the referendum on the Annan plan. “He is finished, nobody will take him as a player any longer,” Erdogan was telling Talat who was expressing his gratitude to the Turkish prime minister for his support.
The second conversation with Gur was probably more embarrassing since Erdogan was asking the businessman to send “20, 25,” (probably 20-25 thousand dollars) to his daughter Sumeyye “who is a bit tight,” in the U.S. Gur denied the conversation ever took place and threatened to take the publishers to court. But before he could do that, prosecutors in Istanbul questioned the editor in chief and city desk editor of Aydinlik and requested their arrest. The two were arrested on charges of illegal wire tapping and membership in an illegal organization. They were the first journalists to end up in behind bars because of publishing wire tapped conversations. Until now no legal action has been taken against those who published similar wire tapped material. The Aydinlik journalists were probably on the wrong side of the line.