Following protracted negotiations between the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and Ankara over electing a new judge representing Turkey on the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to have finally managed to install his own choice as a judge on the Strasbourg rights court.
On Tuesday Turkish academic Saadet Yüksel received the most votes at PACE among three candidates proposed by the Turkish government.
Last December she attended a ceremony at Erdogan’s lavish 1,150-room palace in Ankara to accept an award personally from the Turkish president. Her track record as an academic who specializes in constitutional law does not say much about her views as she has carefully refrained from expressing any critical positions concerning massive rights violations in Turkey in the last couple of years.
Turkey is the leading jailer of journalists worldwide, with 211 journalists and media workers behind bars and more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors dismissed and/or jailed by the Erdoğan government because they were deemed critical of the regime. Tens of thousands of educators including Yüksel’s colleagues at law faculties were purged from universities and schools in a massive crackdown, unprecedented in the history of modern Turkey.
Yüksel’s critics claim she is close to Erdoğan’s inner circle of Islamists and that her family has been intimately involved with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Her elder brother Cüneyt Yüksel was a member of parliament who served with Erdoğan’s party and was a deputy chairman in the party leadership in the past. Saadet Yüksel was an assistant and student of Burhan Kuzu, a chief aide to President Erdogan.
Tapping on the growing alliance between Turkish and Qatari Islamists in recent years, Yüksel reportedly landed a position as a visiting lecturer at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar for the past year. She is currently working at the state-run Istanbul University.
Yüksel has been publicly affiliated with an Islamist foundation called the Yeni Dünya Vakfı (New World Foundation), which is led by her brother and Mahmut Göksu, a preacher-turned-politician who has worked with Erdoğan for years. Göksu had long served as a mufti and preacher for the Turkish government’s religious authority, the Diyanet. He now leads the Yeni Dünya Foundation as its chairman and is involved in raising a new generation of Islamists through a network of dormitories in several provinces of Turkey. Göksu is also a member of the high consultative board for another Islamist organization, İlim Yayma Cemiyeti.
Appearing at an event for Yeni Dünya Vakfı hosted by her brother Cüneyt in December 2018, Yüksel delivered a speech and hailed Göksu, describing him as a “valuable teacher”. She praised the work of the foundation and said she too had been working to contribute to society as described by Mufti Göksu and was quite familiar with the work Yeni Dünya had been doing.
Yüksel’s affiliation with an Islamist group as well as with Erdoğan’s office did not bother PACE, although according to Resolution 1646 (2009), applicants are expected to meet many criteria including “not [engaging] in any activity incompatible with their independence or impartiality or with the demands of a full-time office as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights.” It remains to be seen how she will rule on cases originating from Turkey.
Yüksel’s election as a judge came after four years of wrangling between PACE and Turkey in the nomination process, which began on October 21, 2015 with a letter from the secretary-general of PACE. The PACE subcommittee had rejected an initial list proposed in December 2016 on the grounds that the nominees did not meet the requisite criteria. The second list proposed by the Turkish government met the same fate.
In the third attempt launched on October 23, 2017, the Turkish government selected three candidates, namely Selami Kuran, Selma Öztürk Pınar and Necati Polat for judge from a short list submitted by the Interview Committee. However Pınar withdrew her candidacy on April 20, 2018 and was replaced by Neslihan Karataş Durmuş, who was on the reserve list. But President Erdoğan selected a new candidate — Esra Gül Dardağan Kibar — instead of Durmuş.
The three-person list composed of Kuran, Polat and Kibar was submitted by Turkey to the Committee on the Election of Judges to the Court, which interviewed all candidates in Paris on September 27, 2018. Before the list was presented to the Plenary Session of PACE, Kuran, who had reportedly quarreled with the panel during the interview, was forced to withdrew his candidacy in order to avoid another rejection for Turkey. A search was launched for Kuran’s replacement, and among 13 candidates who applied for the position, two were selected. Erdoğan eventually chose Yüksel to replace Kuran.
In the meantime, Turkey’s current judge, Işıl Karakaş, whose term ended in April 2017, remained in her position on an interim basis. ECtHR hearings on applications from a specific country are required to include a judge from that country.
Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül congratulated Yüksel via a statement he shared on his social media account. She is expected to take up her position in the next three months.
Nordic Monitor previously revealed how President Erdoğan had orchestrated a clandestine plot to replace a sitting United Nations judge with an Islamist academic who was rejected by PACE to sit on the bench in Strasbourg due to a lack of credentials.
The operation was launched in September 2016 when Aydin Sefa Akay, a judge with the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), was arrested in Turkey on fabricated charges of terrorism. Akay was a member of the panel of judges that is reviewing the case of a former Rwandan government minister who was convicted of involvement in his country’s 1994 genocide.
With the Erdoğan government’s lobbying efforts at the UN, Akay was replaced by Yusuf Aksar, a professor of law who has been a loyal supporter of the Erdoğan government.
On Jan. 31, 2017, a United Nations legal panel ordered Turkey to release the judge by Feb. 14 and halt legal proceedings against Akay, who has diplomatic immunity from any prosecution. “The United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals today ordered the Government of the Republic of Turkey to cease all legal proceedings against Judge Aydin Sefa Akay and to take all necessary measures to ensure his release from detention, no later than 14 February 2017, so that he can resume his judicial functions in the case of Prosecutor v. Augustin Ngirabatware. The order is binding on Turkey under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1966 (2010), which requires that all States comply with orders issued by the Mechanism,” the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals said.
The Erdoğan government balked at the request. The demand to release a top United Nations judge is “void,” Turkish authorities said in a letter to the UN Security Council. They said the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals’ request for the release of Akay exceeded the limits of its authority “by interfering in the independent judiciary of Turkey.”
In March 2017 the detention of Akay was referred to the United Nations Security Council, and the Turkish government was charged with infringing on the judicial independence of a UN war crimes tribunal by holding one of its judges in detention despite an order to release him.
In June 2017 a Turkish court convicted Akay on terrorism charges and sentenced him to seven years, six months in prison. He was released pending appeal. In the meantime, the proceedings at the UN court were delayed because of Akay’s lengthy detention. “The proceedings in the [Ngirabatware] case were delayed owing to the inability of Judge Aydin Sefa Akay to exercise his judicial functions in this case until his provisional release from detention on 14 June 2017,” Theodor Meron, the president of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, told the head of the Security Council in a letter dated April 16, 2018.
In the meantime, the Erdoğan government sent a letter to the UN claiming that Akay could no longer function as a judge because of his conviction and submitted court papers to that effect. Although he was wrongfully convicted on false charges with no evidence, UN Secretary-General António Guterres dropped the ball and sided with the Turkish government.