Saturday, October 15, 2011

Turkey: Turkey must do more to ensure independent, impartial judiciary

Turkey must do more to ensure independent, impartial judiciaryA United Nations human rights expert today commended Turkish authorities for placing the protection and promotion of human rights high on their agenda, while calling for further steps to guarantee an independent and impartial judicial system.

“Turkey’s recent judicial reforms package brings improvements, in principle, to the judicial system, but that should only be seen as a first step to effectively safeguard the independence and impartiality of judges, prosecutors and lawyers,” said Gabriela Knaul, the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

The main purpose of Ms. Knaul’s five-day visit, which ended today, was to assess a series of judicial reforms recently undertaken by the Government. She also had the opportunity to examine issues of access to justice, fair trial guarantees, the availability of legal defence and the legal profession.

She noted areas where improvement is needed to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, including rationalizing the way in which judges and prosecutors are moved through a sort of rotation system, possibly taking into account the specialization they have acquired during their career when they are assigned to other posts.

She also cited the need for a High Council of Judges and Prosecutors that is completely independent from the Executive, structurally, functionally and in practice. Currently, the Minister of Justice presides over the High Council and authorizes its investigations.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur said that “the far too close relationship between judges and prosecutors” raises concerns about the respect of the principles of impartiality and equality of arms.

A concern that Ms. Knaul heard “quite regularly” is that, in the daily performance of their duties, lawyers are not treated at the same level as judges and prosecutors. “One symbolic example in this regard is the fact that in the courtroom both judges and prosecutors sit on a podium during the hearings, while lawyers sit at a lower level, close to the defendants and the public.

“Lawyers need to be treated as equal counterparts of judges and prosecutors within the legal professions,” she underscored in her preliminary observations.

Another example of the difficulties that lawyers face are obstacles such as limitations to access case files, non-disclosure of evidence, delays in contact with their clients, and undue identification of the lawyer with his/her clients or the clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.

“Almost unanimously judges and prosecutors have called my attention to the issue of workload and a backlog of cases, which is of course among the main causes of delays in the proceedings,” the expert added. “This structural problem also affects the citizens’ effective access to justice, as justice delayed is justice denied.”

During her visit, Ms. Knaul visited Ankara, Istanbul and Diyarbakir where she held discussions with Government officials, judges, prosecutors, bar associations, lawyers, academics, international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies.

The Special Rapporteur, who functions in an independent and unpaid capacity, will present her final conclusions and recommendations on Turkey to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next June.