Erdogan stokes judicial crisis, calling for new constitution

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By Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waded into a brewing judicial crisis on Friday, calling for a new constitution to resolve an unprecedented clash between two of the country's top courts, 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 Constitutional Court's ruling was unconstitutional. Legal experts say the next steps in resolving the unprecedented standoff between the two courts are difficult to predict.

"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.

Turkey's bar association and the main opposition party CHP have denounced the appeals court move as an "attempted coup" and hundreds of members demonstrated, many of them lawyers in legal robes, chanting "justice" on the capital's streets on Friday.

They marched more than 10 km from Ankara courthouse to Ahlatlibel district, where the Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation are located side by side.

Main opposition leader Ozgur Ozel said at the march that the latest judicial crisis was "an attempt by Erdogan to overhaul the constitutional order".

"The president, who takes his power from the constitution, supports Court of Cassation's actions 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 dragging legal system into chaos with its rulings on individual applications.

"The Court of Cassation is ready to provide necessary support for works on legal and constitutional (amendments) in order to eliminate the problems arisen by the implementation of individual applications," it said.


In comments made later at a ceremony in Ankara, Erdogan took a more moderate tone on the crisis, saying he was not siding with a party in the dispute and assuming the role of the referee.

Erdogan also 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.

The latest crisis showed that Erdogan wants "more control over Turkey's judicial system," according to Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based political analyst.

"His preference is to do things according to the constitution. That is why he has 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 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 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.

It coincided with the European Commission's release of an annual report on Turkey's long-stalled EU 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 criminalisation of constitutional judges ... furthers the degradation of the rule of law in Turkey".

Sule Ozsoy Boyunsuz, professor of constitutional law at Galatasaray University, said that the Court of Cassation ignored the constitution by its ruling on Atalay.

"If Atalay will be stripped of his seat, the national will is going to be usurped. Turkey will become more authoritarian, pressures will intensify."

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 issue could deter foreign direct investment.

"A worsening outlook for the rule of law in Turkey would also hamper its efforts to once again attract Western investments to bolster economic rebalancing efforts," Emre Peker at Eurasia Group said.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Burcu Karakas and Huseyin Hayatsever; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and David Evans)