Interview with Mr Hakan Kaplankaya on the importance of the ECtHR judgement in YÜKSEL YALÇINKAYA v TÜRKİYE

By Maria Popova

I had an interview with Mr Hakan Kaplankaya. Together, we discussed the ECtHR decision Yuksel Yalcinkaya vs Turkey.

Hakan Kaplankaya is a legal advisor and former Turkish diplomat. His research and consultancy services focus mainly on human rights advocacy and international commercial arbitration. During his tenure at the Ministry, he worked at the NATO Desk. He is also a board member of InstiduDE, Belgium’s research-driven NGO.

  1. Mr Kaplankaya, can you elaborate for us what the judgement is about and its importance?

The Turkish government launched a crackdown on the Gulen Movement (GM), especially after the graft probes in December 2013, which escalated to an annihilation campaign after the failed coup on July 15, 2016. GM was designated as a terrorist organisation, which paved the way to widespread criminal prosecutions for membership in a terrorist group against members, followers, and sympathisers of the movement. Within criminal proceedings, routine activities were treated as evidence of terrorist organisation membership, such as subscribing to a daily, enrolling children in GM-affiliated schools, depositing money in Bankasya, using the Bylock mobile chat application, joining GM-related associations, and participating in religious talks.

Over 600,000 people were prosecuted, with more than 300,000 detained and over 100,000 convicted on terrorism charges. The ECtHR’s judgment is a long-awaited response to this travesty of justice.

Another notable aspect of these persecutions and the judgment is that this judicial practice has risen to crimes against humanity. As fellows of the Institute for Diplomacy and Economy, we drafted a report on this issue two years ago. In various opinions, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has concluded that the arbitrary detentions faced by numerous Turkish individuals linked to this group since the coup attempt follow a systematic and widespread pattern, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. The international community should give due consideration and examination to this dimension.

  1. The Grand Chamber judgment in the case highlighted violations of Article 7 (no punishment without law) and Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial) of the ECHR. Could you explain how the Court found that the applicant’s conviction, based on the use of the ByLock application, departed from the requirements of national law and was contrary to the object and purpose of Article 7, which aims to provide safeguards against arbitrary prosecution, conviction, and punishment?

The Court observed that the applicant’s conviction for membership in a terrorist organisation was primarily based on his alleged use of the ByLock messaging application, while other evidence, such as his account at Bank Asya and his membership in a trade union and an association, served as corroborative sources. The mere use of the ByLock application, regardless of the content of the messages or the recipients’ identities, was deemed sufficient in domestic law to establish all the elements of the crime of belonging to an armed terrorist organisation.

Interview with Mr Hakan Kaplankaya on the importance of the ECtHR judgement in YÜKSEL YALÇINKAYA v TÜRKİYE App no 15669/20 (ECtHR, 26 September 2023)

The Court acknowledged that the use of the ByLock application could indicate some connection with the Gülen Group but disagreed with the domestic courts’ conclusion, which was merely downloading and using the application pointed out the complete submission to the organisation and its hierarchy. Instead, the Court found that relying on the mere use of ByLock alone to establish the elements of the offence was an unforeseeable and expansive interpretation of anti-terror legislation. This interpretation essentially created an almost automatic presumption of guilt based solely on ByLock usage, making it extremely difficult for the applicant to prove his innocence.

Without examining the presence of ‘knowledge’ and ‘intent,’ which are requirements in the legal definition of the offence under domestic law, the Court observed that objective liability was effectively attached to the use of ByLock. This interpretation by the domestic courts effectively bypassed the essential, particularly mental, element of the offence and treated it as a strict liability offence, thus deviating from the established requirements in domestic law. Consequently, the Court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 7 of the Convention.

  1. The judgment identifies procedural shortcomings in the criminal proceedings against Mr Yalçınkaya, particularly regarding his access to and ability to effectively challenge the ByLock evidence, breaching his right to a fair trial under Article 6. Can you elaborate on the specific failures in the courts’ handling of the ByLock evidence and how these shortcomings undermined the applicant’s opportunity to challenge the proof effectively, as outlined by the Court?

Regarding Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the Court examined whether the applicant, who faced non-disclosure of crucial ByLock data, was given adequate procedural safeguards and whether the applicant was afforded a suitable opportunity to prepare his defence.

The Court criticised the silence of domestic courts concerning their rejection of the applicant’s request for Bylock raw data, as well as the applicant’s substantiated concerns about the reliability of the evidence. The refusal of the applicant’s request to independently examine the raw data to verify its content and integrity was also noted. The Court emphasized that proceedings should have allowed the applicant to fully comment on the decrypted material, ensuring a “fair balance” between the parties.

In conclusion, the Court found insufficient safeguards for the applicant to challenge the evidence effectively and on equal footing with the prosecution. The failure of domestic courts to address the applicant’s requests and objections raised doubts that they were impervious to the defence arguments. The Court ruled that the applicant was not genuinely ‘heard,’ concluding that the criminal proceedings fell short of a fair trial, breaching Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

  1. The Court held that Türkiye must take general measures to address systemic problems, particularly concerning the Turkish judiciary’s approach to using ByLock. As a legal expert, what specific measures do you believe would be necessary to rectify the identified systemic problems and ensure that future cases involving digital evidence, like ByLock, comply with the requirements of the ECHR, particularly in safeguarding individuals against arbitrary consequences and upholding the principles of a fair trial?

The Court highlighted the systemic nature of the issue, with over 8,000 similar cases and the potential for around one hundred thousand more cases from Turkey to reach the European Court. To address this, Turkey needs to implement general measures for resolution. Although the anti-terror legislation has faced criticism for its broad interpretative potential, mainly from scholars, the Venice Commission, and some European Court judgments, I believe the core problem lies in the arbitrary interpretation by the Turkish judiciary rather than the legislation’s wording. Despite Yalçınkaya reflecting the Court’s stance on this interpretation, there is still room for legislative amendment. However, the most immediate solution would be a jurisprudential change, with the Turkish judiciary aligning itself with the Yalçınkaya judgment, refraining from incriminating people for ordinary, non-criminal activities. Unfortunately, four months after the release of this judgment, Turkish courts have not given a clear signal that they have aligned with it.

Reopening cases in Turkey that have already been presented to the European Court could present a viable solution. Although Turkish criminal procedure permits the reopening of a case if the European Court identifies a violation, this right is currently not extended to similar cases. Nevertheless, a recent ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court lends support to this potential solution. Consequently, a legal amendment would be beneficial to address and clarify this issue explicitly. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any instance where a domestic court has approved reopening a case similar to Yalcinkaya.

Following the Yalcinkaya case, individuals convicted of terrorism charges based on their alleged membership in the GM should be acquitted. The Bylock evidence, riddled with numerous shortcomings, was examined by the Strasbourg Court, which criticised the Turkish court’s flawed examination without explicitly affirming its evidentiary value. However, given the significant deficiencies in the Bylock evidence, it becomes untenable for any impartial court to accept it as credible. Moreover, the Court identified a more substantial issue, emphasising a violation of Article 7. Thus, the result should be an acquittal.

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Interview with Mr Hakan Kaplankaya ECtHR YÜKSEL YALÇINKAYA v TÜRKİYE By Maria Popova
  1. Given the historical significance outlined in the Yalçınkaya judgment and its impact on Article 7 violations, can you elaborate on the specific legal principles related to the “legality of crimes and punishments” that make an Article 7 violation so severe and why the ECHR has been cautious in finding such violations for its member states over the years?”

The “No punishment without law” principle is a fundamental legal tenet. In societies governed by the rule of law, the violation of this principle is not encountered. The recent judgment marks the sixtieth violation ruling by the Court in its history. The incrimination of hundreds of thousands of people in contravention of this principle is profoundly shocking. Witnessing such a grave systemic violation is, in my view, a source of shame for all Europeans.

  1. The Yalçınkaya decision highlights a systemic issue with over 8,000 pending cases of a similar nature and suggests the potential for over 100,000 more cases based on ByLock usage. How do you think non-compliance with the Yalçınkaya decision could impact Turkey’s judicial system and its international standing, and what steps should the authorities, particularly the Constitutional Court, take to address this issue promptly?

As stated in the judgment, it is binding on the Turkish judiciary. Therefore, the Turkish Constitutional Court and other superior courts should align with it. Failure to do so may result in the European Court issuing violation judgments for similar cases and potential future applications. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe will monitor the execution of the judgment, involving a political and diplomatic process. Significantly, according to the Turkish Constitution, the decisions of the European Court are binding, and I hope that they will eventually be implemented in Turkey by Turkish authorities.

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