By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Robert Spano, President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), visited Turkey last week at the
invitation of the Turkish Justice Minister. Spano also met with Pres. Erdogan and gave a lecture at the
Turkish Justice Academy.
While the President of ECHR has the right to visit any country he wishes, it is highly inappropriate that he
accepts an Honorary Doctorate in law from Istanbul University. Several prominent Turkish human rights
activists wrote lengthy columns criticizing Spano for his visit and his acceptance of the Honorary
Former Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen stated that Spano “is not fit to preside [over] the ECHR.” Cenkiz
Aktar, a political scientist and academic, called Spano’s visit “scandalous” and urged him to resign. Exiled
Turkish journalist Can Dundar wrote that Spano “destroyed the 30-year reputation of the ECHR in three
days.” Ahval News quoted several other critical comments from prominent Turks regarding the
unfortunate Spano’s visit to Turkey.
Mehmet Altan, one of those critics, is among the 192 professors of Istanbul University who was fired at the
instigation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Altan, jailed for his non-existent membership in
the banned Gulen religious group, filed a lawsuit against Istanbul University to reverse his firing. Erdogan
also dismissed over 150,000 civil servants from state jobs and investigated close to 600,000 Turkish
citizens, arresting 100,000 of them under the false pretext of belonging to the Islamist Gulen movement
which was accused of orchestrating the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016.
The Turkish Ahval News website posted on August 31, 2020, an article titled, “ECHR chief may receive
controversial honorary doctorate from Istanbul University.”
Ahval reported that Altan, in an open letter addressed to Spano and published on the website of Turkish
journalism platform P24, urged him not to accept the Turkish invitation. “I do not know how much pride
there is to be an honorary member of a university that condemns hundreds of lecturers to unemployment
and poverty by unjustly expelling them from school,” Altan wrote.
Altan told Spano: “The University from which you will receive a doctorate is included as the ‘defendant
institution’ in the lawsuit of academics, like me, who were dismissed by decree…. These cases are still
ongoing and it is likely that they will come before the ECHR, which you preside over.”
Altan continued: “On March 2018, the second section of ECHR, presided over by you, set a precedent in
universal law and ruled that my right to personal liberty and security and my freedom of expression had
been violated. Turkey was convicted…. Ergin Ergul, who was appointed on behalf of Turkey to that case
and was the only judge dissenting, put forward such arguments that you wrote ‘a dissenting vote’ against a
dissenting vote, for the first time in the history of ECHR, if I am not mistaken. And the other members
Ahval reported that there were over 60,000 individual complaints at the ECHR for violations of rights and
freedoms in Turkey.
Yavuz Aydin, who was also dismissed from his profession along with 4,500 judges and prosecutors, wrote
an article titled, “ECHR president faces a test of honor in Turkey,” which was published in Ahval on Sept.
2, 2020. Aydin wrote: “President Spano is certainly aware of the deterioration of rule of law in Turkey. As
a man of honor who has been adjudicating on Turkey-related files at the ECHR for years, the purpose of
his visit cannot be thought of as anything other than openly and courageously shouting out facts in the
faces of government authorities.”
Aydin continued: “The ECHR president knows very well that the government in Turkey translated to one-
man rule by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the constitutional amendment of 2017. As openly
criticized by the Venice Commission, Spano knows that the separation of powers and judicial
independence no longer exist in Turkey. Besides this, he cannot be unaware of Resolution 2156(2017) of
the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which downgraded Turkey to the league of
countries under monitoring status for the first time in European history. This decision implies that Turkey
no longer meets the famous Copenhagen Criteria, and thus cannot be regarded as eligible for accession
negotiations with the EU [European Union].”
Aydin then made a series of suggestions that he hoped Spano would follow during his visit to Turkey:
-- Call on Erdogan to return to democracy and restore the rule of law in the country.
-- Remind the Turkish leaders of the decision to remove from the Turkish Council of Judges and
Prosecutors their observer status in the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary. He should also
remind the candidate judges at the Turkish Judiciary Academy [TJA] why the European Judicial Training
Network expelled the TJA from observer membership status in 2016.
-- Tell them that the existing judges as well as the 10,000 new judges appointed after the coup attempt are
often politically biased in applying the law, and call on them to ignore political pressure from the Palace,
Constitutional Court and other high courts.
-- Remind them that for the first time in history Turkey was found in breach of Article 18 of the European
Convention on Human Rights.
-- Tell the leaders in Turkey that they should immediately release the hundreds of judges still in solitary
confinement and reinstate all 4,000 of their purged colleagues.
Aydin urged Spano “to decline the honorary doctorate even before stepping onto Turkish soil, conveying a
very strong message to all parties before meeting with them in person. Otherwise, the good will exerted
through Spano’s visit would not only be wasted, but serve as a trump card for the government and
Erdogan, who will use the gesture as a sign of appraisal and legitimization of the illegalities taking place in
the country under his rule.”
Regrettably, Spano ignored all the good advice provided by Turkish human rights activists and thus
undermined his own reputation as well as that of the European Court of Human Rights!