PACE fears legitimacy of Turkish referendum, constitution due to restrictions on freedoms

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The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) / AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Monitoring Committee expressed concern in a statement on Thursday about the content of proposed constitutional reforms and the conditions under which a referendum will be held in Turkey in early April.

“The Monitoring Committee expresses serious doubts about the desirability of holding a referendum under the state of emergency and on-going security operations in southeast Turkey,” PACE said in a statement adopted in Strasbourg.

Noting with concern that the adoption procedure in Parliament was speedy — six weeks all in all — and marked by tense debates, infringement of the secrecy of votes, no continuous broadcasting of all parliamentary debates on television and no public consultation on the proposed changes, the Monitoring Committee said: “The committee has deep concerns as to whether the revised constitution — which will grant extensive powers to the President of the Republic — would guarantee the separation of powers, proper checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary, which are a prerequisite for democratic societies.”

Underlining that the constitutional revision would also deprive the parliament of a large part of its fundamental role in making laws and supervising the executive, the Monitoring Committee stated that it has requested the Venice Commission — the Council of Europe’s independent body of legal experts — to prepare an opinion to be adopted on March 10-11, 2017 on the constitutional amendments, so as to address these fundamental issues.

Recalling that the shortcomings observed during past elections, notably with respect to the equal access of all political forces to the media and the misuse of administrative resources, have not yet been addressed, the committee said: “Citizens have the right to be duly informed about the issues at stake and to be provided with comprehensive information on all views, including dissenting voices, in sufficient time.”

PACE said in its statement that “[t]he stripping of the immunity of 154 parliamentarians in May 2016, the current detention of 11 parliamentarians, all belonging to the opposition party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has had a deterrent effect and will lead to serious restrictions to democratic debate in the run up to the referendum.”

The committee also referred to the climate of suspicion and fear created by the disproportionate measures taken since the declaration of the state of emergency in July 2016 (150,000 civil servants dismissed, 100,000 individuals prosecuted and 40,000 of them detained) and the consequences of the emergency decrees on individuals, and on their families, despite steps recently taken by the authorities to open access to legal remedies.

With respect to violations of freedom of expression, the monitoring committee “reiterates its deep concern about the lack of media freedom, the large number of journalists currently in detention (more than 140), significant political influence exerted on the media, insufficient editorial independence of the public radio and TV broadcaster, problematic interpretation of the penal code and the anti-terror law provisions and the chilling effect and pressure on journalists and human rights defenders, which are seriously impeding freedom of expression.”

The opportunity for debate on the constitutional amendments has been undermined because of the large number of NGOs, associations, foundations and media shut down under 19 decree-laws issued during the state of emergency, said the committee.

Unless the Turkish authorities can assure that the organization and conduct of the referendum comply with Council of Europe and Venice Commission guidelines as well as the principles enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the committee “fears that the overall legitimacy of the process – and of the new constitution itself — could be put into question,” especially “in light of the current restrictions on fundamental freedoms in Turkey, notably the freedoms of expression, media and assembly,” and expressed hope that PACE will be invited to monitor the referendum.

In an upcoming debate on Turkey requested by the Monitoring Committee, it is hoped that Turkey can be prompted to comply with its obligations towards the Council of Europe and “enhance its democratic stability and security.”

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