The Round-Up – Council of Europe shows no confidence in Turkey… or its own President

Turkey tank

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has voted to reopen its monitoring of Turkey on account of its “serious concerns” regarding respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law there. This will have come as a blow to Turkey; the country has been involved in “post-monitoring dialogue” with the Assembly since 2004 and had high hopes for its negotiations this year to join the EU.

What prompted this?

In the wake of the failed coup attempt last July there have been growing concerns over human rights abuses in Turkey. The vote was prompted in particular by a report from Ingebjørg Godskesen and Marianne Mikko, who are part of the Monitoring Committee and have been co-rapporteurs for the post-monitoring dialogue with the country. Since the coup, Turkey has declared a state of emergency and made large-scale use of decree laws (which bypass parliamentary procedures). While the Monitoring Committee recognised the ongoing trauma and terrorist threats following the coup, it nevertheless registered concern over the large-scale and disproportionate implementation of such measures.

It also noted the widespread dismissal of lawyers, civil servants, and academics, the limited access to judicial remedies, the detention of politicians and journalists, and the suppression of freedom of speech and the media. Since the publication of this report, Turkey’s latest measure to elicit criticism has been its decision to block access to Wikipedia, further to a law which allows it to ban websites that pose a threat to public order, national security, or the wellbeing of the public.

Finally, the Committee drew anxious attention to the constitutional amendments, which would result in a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and to the decision to organise a referendum during a state of emergency, with as many as 500,000 people displaced.

What will happen now?

PACE has adopted a resolution requesting that the Turkish government lift the state of emergency “as soon as possible”, cease passing emergency decree laws “unless strictly needed”, release all those parliamentarians and journalists detained, restore freedom of expression and the media, and ensure fair trials with procedural guarantees. PACE intends to maintain such monitoring until such time as its concerns “are addressed in a satisfactory manner”. Amnesty International has heralded the resolution as sending “a clear and powerful message that Turkey must end its crackdown on human rights”.

Unsurprisingly however, it was met with outrage from the Turkish government. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim accused PACE of political motives in its vote, and cited it as evidence of the “Islamophobia, racism and anti-Turkish sentiment” across Europe.

Meanwhile, back at the Palace of Europe…

For the first time in the history of the Council of Europe a bureau of senior MPs from PACE passed a vote of no confidence in its leader. President Pedro Agramunt, who had been re-elected only in January, was stripped of his powers after flying out with a Russian delegation and meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – just days before the chemical attack on Idlib. Agramunt responded to criticism that the meeting was “manipulated by Russian media” to appear as a visit from the President of PACE, and that rather he went as a Spanish senator “looking for peace”. He has also been accused of failing to address alleged corruption in the assembly. Sir Roger Gale, the British Conservative MP who as Senior Vice-President of the Assembly chaired the meeting, stated that the bureau was forced to resort to such measures given that there was no procedure for forcing a president to resign. Agramunt, however, seems unlikely to respond to such pressure after releasing a statement that declined to respond to calls for his resignation, but rather simply described the incident as “an entirely bizarre case and a regrettable spectacle”.

IN THE UK COURTS:

The government has been ordered to publish its new policy on air pollution immediately after the High Court rejected its attempt to delay publication. The government were taken to court by ClientEarth in November 2016, when Garnham J held that the government’s plans to combat air pollution were illegally poor, and ordered them to reformulate plans to meet objectives as soon as possible. The case followed a report published last year by the Royal College of Physicians, claiming that outdoor air pollution was contributing to approximately 40,000 early deaths every year in the UK. Moreover, in 2017 London breached its annual air pollution limits within just five days. Nevertheless, after Theresa May called the snap election, the government had sought to delay publication of its new and reportedly tough plans. They claimed in court on Thursday that it was necessary to keep their plans secret in order to “comply with pre-election propriety rules” during purdah, the sensitive period between the announcement of an election and the election results when civil servants and local government officers are restricted from certain activities. Garnham J, however, rejected this argument on the grounds that purdah was not a principle of law and that, at any rate, public health took priority. Rather, he held that the secretary of state was in breach of the court order to take this action “by the soonest date possible”, and gave them until 9th May to publish the new plans.

A Christian would-be social worker has been given permission by the High Court to mount a judicial review of his former university’s decision to remove him from his course after posting “traditional” views on homosexuality on Facebook. Felix Ngole, who was studying for a master’s in social work at Sheffield University, posted during a debate on Facebook that “the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin”. A university committee decided to exclude Ngole on the basis that he would not be fit to practise in a professional role as a social worker, where he would likely come into contact with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients, and this decision was upheld on appeal. Mr Ngole however, contends that he was lawfully expressing a traditional Christian view. He is supported by Christian Concern, whose CEO Andrea Williams welcomed the High Court’s decision to grant permission and stated that the case has “wide-reaching ramifications for the freedom of Christians”. The hearing is expected to take place later this year.

IN THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS:

Rezmiveș and Others v Romania: the Court held that the applicants had endured inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to Article 3 during their detention in Romanian prisons. The court found that for most of their detention the applicants only had 3 square metres of personal space, conditions that were further exacerbated by such factors as the lack of natural light and ventilation in the cells, the presence of insects, bedbugs and rats in the cells, inadequate sanitary facilities, and insufficient access to hot water. The applicants’ allegations were further supported by evidence from other cases that had come before the Court, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) which had visited certain prisons and police detention facilities in 2010 and 2014, and the Romanian Ombudsman following investigations into complaints by prisoners. The Court therefore, considering these conditions and the length of the applicants’ incarceration, held that there had been a violation of Article 3 since they had been subjected to hardship over and above any suffering inherent in detention. Furthermore, it viewed this case as part of a wider problem endemic in the Romanian prison system (with some prisons occupied at over 200% of their capacity), which led to the Romanian government proposing plans to pardon thousands of criminals earlier this year. The Court has therefore applied a pilot-judgment procedure, whereby the State has been ordered to introduce measures to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions of detention, and also to introduce remedies so that domestic courts can bring a halt to any such situations and duly award compensation.

Vaskrsić v Slovenia: the Court held that there had been a violation of the applicant’s right to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions after his house was sold at half its market value in order to settle a debt which had first arisen from a utilities bill. When the applicant failed to pay his water bill of EUR 124, the company issued proceedings against him, and thereafter some other companies did so too. After initially failing to object and submit an application for appeal, the Litija Local Court ordered the sale of his house principally to repay the debt he owed to the public water-supply company, but although valued at EUR 140,000, his house was sold for only EUR 70,000 at public auction. The Court held that there had been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1 (the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions), and that, particularly given the low value of the debt enforced through the judicial sale and the lack of consideration to other measures available, the State had not struck a fair balance between the aim sought and measure employed. The applicant was thus awarded EUR 80,000 in damages and EUR 5,000 in costs.

A.P., Garçon and Nicot v France: the Court held that domestic courts had violated two transgender applicants’ right to a private life under Article 8 by requiring that the rectification of the entry of sex on their birth certificates was conditional upon them establishing the irreversible nature of the change in their appearance. The applicants complained that this criterion implied undergoing an operation that was highly likely to result in sterility, and that such an irreversible operation would thus compromise their physical integrity. The Court upheld their complaints and thus considered that a balance had not been struck between the general interest and the interests of the individuals concerned. On the other hand, the Court did not consider other requirements by domestic courts, that an applicant prove they suffer from gender identity disorder violation or undergo a medical examination, to have constituted violations of Article 8.