Human Rights And Democratic Governance Are On Trial In 3 Countries

Weekly Global Briefing: Rule Of Law Edition
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Erdogan Is Jailing Journalists And Sentencing Them As Terrorists

Seventeen journalists from Turkey’s independent Cumhuriyet newspaper are on trial this week. Their crime? Daring to do their jobs in a country ruled by autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After essentially freeing himself from any political checks on his power via a sweeping constitutional referendum, Erdogan is pressing ahead with a purge on one of the last obstacles to his free reign: a free press.

Turkish prosecutors charged the journalists with aiding a terrorist organization, which could carry up to 43 years of jail time if they are found guilty. Specifically, Cumhuriyet is accused of supporting the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric exiled in Pennsylvania, who Erdogan accuses of inciting a failed coup attempt last year. The evidence against the journalists is as scant as it is absurd: authorities have cited their tweets, articles, even editorial style; in short the very act of conducting their profession. Some of the journalists are even accused of being Gulenists despite their criticisms of Gulenism.

Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with about 150 currently detained, though Erdogan claims he has imprisoned hardly any. The number of detainees overall has swelled to 50,000 after the coup, and include teachers, police, civil servants, judges, and other lawmakers.

Virtually anyone who is remotely critical of Erdogan is labeled a terrorist. Cumhuriyet’s tea vendor was reportedly arrested for simply stating that he would not serve tea to Turkey’s tyrant-in-chief if he ever met him. Human rights organizations have cited numerous cases of torture, denial of prisoners’ rights, and other ill treatment.

Last week, Turkey detained 10 human rights activists, including at least one EU national and the heads of Amnesty International Turkey. Accession talks between the EU and Turkey turned sour Tuesday, as Erdogan countered European protests of the detentions with claims that the West is implanting agents in his country. Germany is considering limiting investment permits to Turkey, among other measures, in retaliation. It will hardly dissuade Turkey’s aspiring despot.

Poland’s Judiciary Under Threat

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) are attempting to essentially do away with the notion of an independent judiciary. Citing the need to battle corruption, PiS are pushing a bill that would have allowed for lawmakers to hire and fire judges at all levels of the judiciary. The bill sparked massive protests across the country, and threats of punitive sanctions from the EU.

After it was passed through parliament, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, issued a surprising veto on Monday to most of the bill’s provisions. Specifically, he struck down a measure that would have terminated the terms of all Supreme Court justices, except those picked by the justice minister, as well as a measure that would have allowed lawmakers to appoint the council that elects judges at the national level. However, he chose to retain a section of the bill that allows the justice minister authority over judges in local courts. Mr. Duda has vowed to send a revised bill back to Parliament in the coming days.

Whether Mr. Duda was swayed by the protests or the European threats is unclear. Regardless, this move puts him at odds with the leader of PiS Jaroslaw Kaczynski, widely regarded as the true source of power in Poland, and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.

Kaczynski and Szydlo have sought to curtail democratic institutions since PiS’ electoral victory in 2015. Controlling both houses of parliament, they have moved the country closer to authoritarianism by wresting control of state media, limiting the judiciary’s ability to review laws, and other undemocratic measures. They have largely been able to get away with it, placating the poor and elderly with increased welfare payments.

Citizens are fighting back, however. Last fall, PiS struck down its proposed abortion ban in the wake of massive protests that sprung up in the otherwise staunchly Catholic country. The fact that people came out to the streets again for this bill ought to make the PiS top brass rethink their tactics. Having toppled the Communist government in 1989, Poles have experience with ridding themselves of totalitarian regimes.

The Trial Of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan awaits a decision from its Supreme Court on corruption allegations against the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The allegations were brought up by opposition parties after the leaked 2016 Panama Papers found that members of his family had used offshore accounts to buy apartments in London. In an unprecedented move, the court decided to call for an investigation, after the opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, filed charges based on the leaks. The probe set up by the court concluded that Mr. Sharif had accumulated income that greatly exceeded his earnings while in office, and that his family had falsified documents to hide assets. It is unclear when the court will issue its final decision.

Should it find him guilty, the Supreme Court has the power to dismiss Mr. Sharif. If it does, it is unclear who his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), will appoint as interim prime minister. His younger brother is seen as the most likely option.

The claims are disputed by the Sharif family. They have faced allegations of corruption before, but this is the first time they have actually been investigated.

This is Sharif’s third term as PM, so he is no stranger to challenges to his rule, having been forced out from his previous two stints. In his first term from 1990–93, he was forced to resign by the armed forces after a spat with the President led to a constitutional crisis. In his second stint, from 1997–99, he tried to enact Sharia Law but was ousted by a military coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia. He returned ten years later and came back to power in 2013.

He shed his previous religious conservatism for a more centrist platform, vowing to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger. He managed modest growth during his latest stint (an average of 4.5% per year), and also adopted a tougher stance on fundamentalist groups. His critics retort that the latter is due to fierce opposition to his previous tolerance of terrorist groups, following massive attacks in the country, and that he has done little to address endemic corruption, lack of basic services, and other chronic issues in the country. His supporters, meanwhile, dismiss the investigation as meddling by opposition parties and the ISI, Pakistan’s powerful and largely unregulated military intelligence service, ahead of elections next June.

This is the first time Sharif is facing trial for his actions. This might be seen as a welcome sign of the rule of law at hand. In a country with few peaceful transfers of power, however, one must nervously wait and see.

Global Outlook // Human Rights / Turkey / World