The Turkish government on Friday bitterly criticised an order by a top court to release two senior journalists arrested in the post-coup crackdown, accusing the court of exceeding its legal jurisdiction.
In a row that risks sparking a prolonged standoff, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the ruling by the Constitutional Court that the rights of the pair had been violated risked playing into the hands of terror groups.
Defendants Sahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan had still not been released on Friday afternoon — over 24 hours after the court ruling was first announced.
The pair had been accused — in separate cases — of links to US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says masterminded the failed 2016 coup attempt. Gulen denies the charges.
Rights campaigners hoped the Constitutional Court ruling could set a major legal precedent and would help dozens of other journalists arrested in the crackdown.
But two Istanbul criminal courts late Thursday defied the top court’s ruling and ordered that both writers should for now remain behind bars.
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag accused the Constitutional Court of exceeding its powers by acting as a top court of appeal. Turkey has its own Court of Cassation, known as the Yargitay and a top administrative court called the Danistay.
“With this decision the Constitutional Court has crossed over its legislative and constitutional limits,” Bozdag wrote on Twitter. “This court should not act as an appeals court.”
He described the decision as “bad and wrong”, saying it was reminiscent of the same court’s ruling in February 2016 to order the release from jail of the former editor of the Cumhuriyet daily Can Dundar.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had at the time fumed over that decision, saying he had “no respect for it”.
Yildirim hit out at the latest decision from the court, saying that the government expected the courts “not to take any decision that could weaken our offensive against terror groups”.
‘Tried without arrest’
The Constitutional Court is one of the very few public institutions in Turkey not fully controlled by Erdogan who enjoys the support of the armed forces, parliament and government.
Most of its 17 members were appointed during the rule of Erdogan’s predecessor Abdullah Gul or the previous president Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
“Now we know why they weren’t released last night,” commented Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkey director of Human Rights Watch, on Twitter after Bozdag’s remarks.
Gul — whose public comments have multiplied in recent weeks amid frenetic speculation he may stand in presidential elections — also waded into the controversy.
“I always said when I was president, and even subsequently, that it was preferable, for the sake of justice and Turkey’s image, for journalists to be tried while not under arrest,” said Gul, president from 2007 to 2014.
“Today, this is still my opinion,” added Gul, who helped found the ruling party with Erdogan but is now seen as a powerful, albeit hugely cautious, critic of the president.
The Istanbul courts said that the men could not be released as the Constitutional Court had not formally communicated its rationale.
But the top court hit back with a rare message on Twitter, noting its full ruling could be read by anyone on the internet.
It was not immediately clear if any new attempt would be made to obtain the men’s release.
“It’s unacceptable that local courts thwart a ruling by the highest judicial instance in the country,” Erol Onderoglu, the representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey, told AFP.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir said he was “deeply concerned” by the Istanbul courts’ decision.
Alpay, 73, is a political scientist who wrote a column for the now closed staunchly pro-Gulen Zaman newspaper.
Mehmet Altan, 64, has written books on Turkish politics. His brother Ahmet, a novelist and journalist for some of Turkey’s leading dailies, is also being held in the same case.
According to the P24 press freedom website, there are 151 journalists in Turkish prisons, most of whom were detained under the state of emergency imposed after the coup bid.