(CN) – Reminding Turkey that “democracy thrives on freedom of expression,” the European Court of Human Rights criticized the prosecution Tuesday of prominent journalists Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay.
In a 6-1 ruling this morning, the court slapped Turkey with fines for trampling upon the reporters’ rights to liberty, security and expression, but stopped short of finding the Turkish judiciary unfit to protect the freedoms of subjected to a government purge.
Altan and Alpay’s arrests followed a failed coup attempt in July 2016, which Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed on the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Roundly denounced by human-rights and press-freedom monitors, the cases against Altan and Alpay accused the pair of attempting to topple the Turkish government on Gulen’s behalf.
Ultimately a judge gave Altan an aggravated life sentence for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.” Alpay awaits a verdict on similar charges.
Quoting the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, the majority noted that “anti-terrorism legislation had long been used in Turkey against journalists expressing critical opinions about government policies.”
“Nevertheless, since the declaration of the state of emergency, the right to freedom of expression had been weakened even further,” Judge Robert Spano wrote for the panel. “Since 15 July 2016, 231 journalists had been arrested and more than 150 remained in prison.”
Awarding both men more than $26,400 in damages, the court directed Turkey to immediately terminate the pretrial detention of Alpay, who was released and put on house arrest last week in anticipation of today’s ruling.
Judge Ergin Ergul, who wrote Tuesday’s lone dissent, is Turkish.
The cases against Altan and Alpay were rife with irregularities. At different stages, Turkey’s highest court ordered both men to be released, only to be overruled by trial judges in Istanbul. Alpay was finally released pending trial the second time the constitutional court intervened on his behalf, but Altan remains locked up inside Istanbul’s Silivri prison.
Attorneys for Alpay and Altan argued that the lower courts’ defiance of those rulings proved the Turkish judiciary did not provide effective remedies for rights violations.
But the European court did not go as far Tuesday as to find Turkey’s judicial order wholly ineffective.
“Nevertheless, it reserves the right to examine the effectiveness of the system of individual applications to the Constitutional Court in relation to applications under Article 5 of the Convention,” the opinion states, referring to the rights to liberty and security under the European Convention.
Discussing this mixed verdict in a Skype interview, Freedom House director Nate Schenkken said the court may have been reluctant to open the floodgates to scores of Turkish journalists, academics, civil servants and law-enforcement officials purged in the wake of the country’s state of emergency.
“If they decide there’s no domestic remedy in Turkey, they’re going to get 150,000 applications that they’re going to have to hear, immediately, and they don’t have the capacity to hear them,” Schenkken said.
“That’s obviously not a legal answer,” he noted. “That’s a political answer, and it’s been clear for a while that everyone’s looking for a political way to avoid this.”
Altan’s brother, Ahmet Alan, was also given a life sentence but his case has not yet reached Europe’s rights court. Thirty-eight Nobel laureates have signed an open letter that calls on Erdogan to free Altan, who is considered one of Turkey’s most renowned novelists.
Like dozens of other news outlets shuttered in the wake of Turkey’s state of emergency, Taraf, the liberal broadsheet where Altan worked with his brother, Ahmet Altan, has since been shuttered for alleged Gulen ties.
Alpay’s former newspaper Zaman was also shut down by Erdogan’s government for its ties to Gulen’s movement.
The Altans’ attorney, Veysel Ok, tweeted his reaction to the decision this morning. “This is a cautious ruling which still gives Turkey a chance to make [its Constitutional] Court an effective remedy,” Ok wrote.
Prospects for Turkey reforming its human-rights record amid international criticism remain murky.
Earlier this morning, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a scathing report finding Turkey had committed “profound” abuses, such as arbitrary detentions and dismissals, infringements on the rights of freedom of association and expression, and torture and ill-treatment.
But Turkey’s foreign ministry rejected al-Hussein’s call to end a state of emergency, instead attacking the commissioner as a “collaborator of terrorist organizations.”
Such defiance has led to Turkey’s continued slide among civil-society watchdogs.
Turkey has held the record for two years in a row as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, and it holds the 155th spot out of 180 nations ranked by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.