Ankara (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waded into a brewing judicial crisis on Friday, criticising the Constitutional Court for “many mistakes” and backing an unprecedented challenge to it by an appeals court, as opponents marched in Ankara.
The comments stoked a debate over the rule of law that erupted on Wednesday when the appeals Court of Cassation made a criminal complaint against judges of the Constitutional Court, which ruled last month that jailed parliamentarian Can Atalay should be released.
In a twist – which critics said highlighted the diminished state of Turkey’s legal system – the top appeals court said the Constituional Court’s ruling was unconstitutional.
“Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court has made many mistakes in a row at this point, which seriously saddens us,” Erdogan told reporters on a flight back from Uzbekistan, according to a text published by his office on Friday.
“The Constitutional Court cannot and should not underestimate the step taken by the Court of Cassation on this matter,” he said.
Turkey’s bar association and the main opposition party have denounced the appeals court move as an “attempted coup” and hundreds of members demonstrated, many of the lawyers in legal robes, chanting “Justice” on the capital’s streets on Friday.
They were headed to the appeals court and video showed they were briefly delayed by police.
Erdogan also urged his ruling AK Party members to support the appeals court challenge, appearing to take aim at some in its ranks who had criticised the move.
The judicial clash comes at a time when Turkey is seeking to woo foreign investors after a U-turn in economic policy towards greater orthodoxy since Erdogan won tight May elections. Some analysts said the spat could deter foreign direct investment.
‘Degradation Of Rule Of Law’
In comments made later at a ceremony in Ankara, Erdogan said the dispute between the two top courts showed the need for a new constitution, reflecting his longstanding position that parliament should take up the matter next year.
Atalay, 47, was sentenced to 18 years in prison last year after being convicted of trying to overthrow the government by organising nationwide protests in 2013, along with Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and six others.
All defendants denied the charges regarding the protests, which they said developed spontaneously in what has stood as the biggest popular challenge to Erdogan in his more than two decades in power.
Legal experts said such a crisis between the country’s two most prominent courts was unprecedented, and underlined concerns that the judiciary has been bent to Erdogan’s will over the last decade.
It coincided with the European Commission’s release of an annual report on Turkey’s long-stalled European Union membership bid in which it underlined “serious backsliding” on democratic standards, the rule of law and judicial independence.
“The Court of Cassation’s backlash (…) is an open and combative attack against the Constitutional Court,” said Bertil Oder, professor of constitutional law at Koc University.
“Such criminalization of constitutional judges intimidates not only the relevant judges but also furthers the degradation of the rule of law in Turkey,” she said.