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Turkey: Veteran Islamic Leader Suffers Blow In European Court

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

For the first time since its creation more than 40 years ago, the European Court of Human Rights earlier this week backed Turkey's decision to ban a political party. The unexpected verdict is likely to strengthen the position of those who oppose political Islam in Turkey, which is a member of the Council of Europe and a European Union candidate. It may also be the coup de grace for the historical leader of Turkey's Islamic movement.

Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Court of Human Rights set a precedent earlier this week when it ruled that Turkish authorities did not contravene democratic principles by ordering the dissolution of a major pro-Islamic political party three years ago.

This marks the first time since the court, which was created in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, has backed Turkey's decision to ban a political party.

By a vote of four to three, the seven-member panel of judges held on 31 July that sanctions imposed on former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) did not violate Article 11 of the European Human Rights Convention, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association so long as it does not threaten a democratic state.

The Welfare Party was set up in 1983 and took part in several legislative and municipal polls, taking control of six of Turkey's 15 largest cities in 1994, including Istanbul and Ankara. The party garnered 22 percent of the votes in the 1995 general election, paving the way for Erbakan to become the country's first-ever Islamic prime minister in July 1996.

Erbakan was forced from power in 1997 by a "soft" military coup. Shortly after, in January 1998, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Welfare Party on grounds that its alleged calls to political violence represented a threat to the country's stated secularism. The court also ordered that a five-year political ban be imposed on Erbakan and five other party members -- including Welfare deputy chairmen Sevket Kazan and Ahmet Tekdal -- on similar charges.

Erbakan, Kazan, and Tekdal went to the Strasbourg-based court, complaining that the ban was violating their rights under the European Convention of Human Rights. They also filed a separate complaint in the name of Welfare, which had had all its assets confiscated and handed over to the Turkish treasury after its closure.

In a statement released after it delivered the verdict, the court said it had ruled against all four complaints, arguing that the Turkish constitutional judges' decision was necessary to preserve civil peace and democracy.

The statement read: "The Court held that the sanctions imposed on the applicants could reasonably be considered to meet a pressing social need for the protection of democratic society."

In their judgment, the seven European judges considered that "on the pretext of giving a different meaning to the principle of secularism, the leaders of the [Welfare Party] had declared their intention to establish a plurality of legal systems based on differences in religious belief, to institute Islamic law (Sharia), a system of law that was in marked contrast to the values embodied in the [European] Convention [of Human Rights]."

The European Court's statement went on to say the plaintiffs "also left in doubt their position regarding recourse to force in order to come to power and, more particularly, to retain power."

Former general prosecutor Vural, who had launched the legal procedures against Welfare, welcomed the verdict, saying that the party had become "a rallying point for activities directed against Turkey's secularism."

Hamit Bozarslan is a Turkey expert at the Paris-based School of Higher Studies in the Social Sciences, better known under its French acronym of EHESS. He told RFE/RL that the court's ruling came as a surprise:

"I think this was quite an unexpected decision because the Welfare Party had never participated in any violent action. Except for two or three verbal faux pas [made by individual members], the party had never advocated violence."

Kazan, a former justice minister, described the verdict as "political" and said he and the other plaintiffs would appeal the court's decision within three months.

Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Islamist leader Recai Kutan made similar comments, accusing the European court of exercising a "double standard."

In June, Kutan's Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi), which had been set up in the immediate aftermath of Welfare's closure, was banned by Turkey's Constitutional Court on the grounds that it, too, represented a threat to secularism and that it was the continuation of Welfare under another name.

Welfare lawyer Laurent Hincker reportedly criticized the verdict, accusing Turkey of running only a facade of democracy.

Hincker was not immediately available for comment. But Hincker's law partner, Marie Lemaitre, told RFE/RL that the court failed to study Welfare's statutes and political programs before ruling over the case. Instead, she said, the panel based its verdict mainly on statements and speeches made by individual Welfare leaders. The Turkish Constitutional Court has described these speeches and statements as "calls to violence" to justify the ban.

"The problem is that these speeches -- some of which date back to the years 1993-1994, while the ban on the party was imposed in 1998 -- had never been prosecuted although Turkey had all the legal means to do so at the time. Since these speeches were considered in 1998 as 'creating a center of activities against the principles of secularism,' why weren't they prosecuted at the time they were made?"

Lemaitre goes on:

"[Prior to 1998], the Turkish Constitutional Court had, for example, closed down the local branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party, and the European Court [of Human Rights] had condemned all three decisions. The court had examined the statutes and the programs of each of these parties and each time had held that the Turkish decision had violated the [European] Convention [on Human Rights.] Logically, should the court have followed the same procedure regarding the Welfare Party, the decision would have been different from the final verdict."

Turkey has a long tradition of banning political groups regarded as subversive by the country's powerful military, which presides over domestic affairs through the National Security Council.

Turkey's influential generals, who have toppled four governments since 1960, have vowed to eradicate what they describe as the "fundamentalist Islamic threat." The army argues that any easing in the anti-Islamic campaign could move the country away from founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's stated goal of a pro-Western Turkey and turn it into an "Iran-like theocracy."

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who was himself temporarily barred from politics in the wake of the 1980 military coup while running the Republican People's Party, has repeatedly said that he does not favor the banning of political parties.

He has said that more democratic means should be used in combating Islamic political movements, arguing that such radical measures have never had deterrent effects.

A simple look at Erbakan's political background would be enough to suggest that Ecevit is right.

A veteran of Turkish politics, the 75-year-old Islamic leader has faced several public bans over the past 30 years. In 1971, his National Order Party was closed down by the Constitutional Court before it re-emerged two years later as the National Salvation Party to join the ruling coalition. Erbakan was banned again from political life in the wake of the 1980 military coup until he returned to head the Welfare Party in the early 1980s.

Although he never had any official position in Kutan's Virtue Party, Erbakan was generally considered as the party's main ideologist. Earlier this month, Kutan announced that he had founded a new party called Saadet (an Arabic word which can be translated as "felicity"). Once again, Erbakan is seen as the man pulling the strings behind the party's nominal leaders.

Yet, Turkish analysts believe that the precedent set by the Strasbourg-based court may signal the end of the road for this man who, ironically, has never been a great friend of European institutions.

In comments reported by the semi-official Anatolian news agency, Ilter Turan, a professor of political sciences at Istanbul's Bilgi University, said that the verdict would prevent Erbakan from running Saadet and that his political career should be considered finished.

But Bozarslan has a different opinion. He said that, to his view, the court's verdict is unlikely to have a direct impact on Erbakan's political life, although he will probably continue to enjoy a high prestige among the conservative branch of the Islamic movement:

"I think that the ruling [of the European Court of Human Rights] will have no direct consequences, because Erbakan's political life was already over. He's now approaching 76 and even though Turkish politicians usually have a very, very long political life expectancy, I think that his political career is already behind him."

Islamic hardliners such as Erbakan and Kutan are largely seen as a fading political force. Virtue won only 15 percent of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, 7 percent less than the vote garnered by Welfare four years earlier. A few months ago, public opinion polls suggested that the party was well below the 10 percent needed to be represented in parliament.

To add to its troubles, the Islamic old guard is challenged by young reformists, such as former Istanbul mayor Recep and Tayyip Erdogan, who seek to modernize the movement and advocate reconciliation between Turkey's Islamic tradition and Western democratic values.

Erdogan was sentenced to a three-year political ban in 1999 for allegedly inciting religious hatred. But he is now considering returning to politics to run a new Islamic party which, recent opinion polls indicate, would attract the majority of Turkey's Islamic voters.

Bozarslan of EHESS agrees that the new blow suffered by Erbakan in Strasbourg could, to some extent, profit Erdogan and other reform-minded Islamic leaders. But he says one of the main beneficiaries of the European court's decision will be the army -- which will use the verdict to further justify its campaign against political Islam.