'Radical' Shift in Turkey's Judiciary ; in a Bid to Join the EU, Turkish Judges and Prosecutors Are Being Trained in the Fundamentals of Human Rights Law

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When a pro-Kurdish politician accused ofsupporting a terrorist organization was acquitted recently, the verdict made front-page news here. "Radical," was how the daily Milliyet described the case.

The nation's State Security Courts (DGMs), tribunals that handle terrorism and political cases, cited European human rights law as the basis of the decision. In doing so, they marked a fundamental shift in the way Turkey's legal system is beginning to operate.

"The DGMs Say Hello to Europe," the newspaper's headline read. But the two courts are not the only parts of the judiciary saying "hello" to Europe. Over the past few months, some 9,200 judges and prosecutors have been trained- in the largest program of its kind in Turkey - in the basic foundations of human rights law. It is a massive effort to help the country adopt a model more in line with European standards.

The program, a project of the Turkish Ministry of Justice and the European Union, is one of numerous reforms undertaken by Turkey as it continues its bid to join the EU. One of the largest obstacles on the road to Brussels, thus far, has been the spotty human rights record of its criminal justice system.

"This [training program] is part of being contemporary. At a certain point you have to respect human rights," says Demet Gural, executive director of the Human Resources Development Foundation. "I wouldn't have imagined 10 years ago that the Ministry of Justice, for example, would be conducting human rights training for its staff."

Reforms have ranged from ending the death penalty to loosening the military's control over civil affairs. Hoping to receive a positive answer from the EU this year about when accession negotiations may begin, Turkey has been passing reform packages at a rapid clip.

So rapid, in fact, that the terrorism trial against 69 people accused of helping organize the deadly Istanbul bombings last November was stopped as soon as it began in a state security court Monday. The defense argued that the case was not valid, since such DGMs are soon to be replaced with new tribunals more in line with European norms.

Organizers of the human rights training program say they are trying to bridge an educational gap that some Turkish jurists may have. "In Turkish law schools, in their old program, there were no courses in human rights," says Ebru Dabbagh, the training program's coordinator. "They learned about human rights as a small part of the penal code or through international law, but they did not learn about it in detail."

International standards

Haluk Mahmutogullari, a judge who heads the Ministry of Justice's training division, says that although Turkish judges and prosecutors are not unaware of international human rights standards, the practical application of those standards has sometimes failed.

"For the last years Turkey has been punished by the European Court of Human Rights quite often," he says, "which meant that we definitely should do something about it and find what we were doing wrong. …


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