ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s top judge warned on Tuesday that the country’s judiciary could become an “instrument of revenge” in the hands of political authorities, after government-backed candidates strengthened their grip on key courts.
Elections to judicial bodies appeared to strengthen President Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to curb the judiciary’s power and purge it of the influence of an Islamic cleric he accuses of trying to topple him with a manufactured graft scandal.
Constitutional court chairman Hasim Kilic said he was quitting a month before his term expires in March, warning that EU-candidate Turkey faced serious problems of judicial independence.
“Everybody knows the political views of the judges and prosecutors in the remotest villages of the country. We cannot continue with such a judiciary,” he told a news conference, complaining about the way judiciary elections are held.
“As long as these elections are held, there will be political conflicts, debates. Judiciary is not an instrument of revenge, not anybody’s body of power to achieve their aims.”
The votes were held four months ahead of a general election which Erdogan hopes will pave the way for reform enabling him to fulfill his ambition of becoming an executive president.
Kilic has clashed with Erdogan in the past, notably over a ruling to lift a ban on Twitter imposed by authorities angered by corruption allegations.
Constitutional Court members elected Zuhtu Arslan as their new chairman by 11 votes to six.
Erdogan, accused by critics of an increasingly authoritarian drift, had supported Arslan’s candidacy, a senior official familiar with the matter who declined to be named told Reuters.
AK Party Deputy Chairman Mustafa Sentop told Reuters: “The constitutional court needed a new start and Zuhtu Arslan provides a great opportunity for this.”
In a separate vote, Rustu Cirit was elected chairman of the top appeals court, his candidacy supported by a judicial association close to government.
Candidates supported by the government won most seats in a top judicial body last October.
Turkey’s opposition and the European Union have raised concerns about political interference in the judiciary.
Since a corruption investigation targeting Erdogan’s inner circle emerged in late 2013, hundreds of judges and prosecutors and thousands of police officers have been purged or reassigned. Courts have dropped cases against those accused of graft.
Erdogan says the scandal was contrived by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a close ally in the years after Erdogan’s AK Party was first elected in 2002, in an attempt to topple him. Gulen denies the accusation.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; editing by Ralph Boulton