Desperate for justice, Turks resort to trial by Twitter

Recently, Twitter has become something of a people's court for Turks seeking justice. Particularly in cases of violence against women and animal rights, social media is regarded as the final legal avenue for those demanding a just ruling, yet the risk of cyber-bullying is high. Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

By Ayşe Karabat

In Turkey, social media is increasingly becoming a legal forum, with users seeking justice on a daily basis. Practically every day there is a hashtag calling for the arrest or release of someone, with the name of the person or campaign topping Twitter’s trending list. Calls for justice in cases of violence against women and animal rights are especially frequent. Moreover, those issues without a powerful hashtag to support them are often destined to draw a blank with the country's actual judicial system.

One notorious case was that of Sule Cet, a 23 year-old student who plunged to her death in May 2018 from the 20th floor of a high-rise building in Ankara. The incident was initially reported as a suicide. Her boss and his friend who had last been seen with her at the building were released from police detention shortly afterwards, the police citing a "lack of evidence" of their involvement.

The suspects were eventually jailed months later, but only after Cet’s friends and family launched a forceful social media campaign calling for her death to be investigated. Her case became a cause celebre. With the #SuleCetİcinAdalet (Justice for Sule Cet) hashtag garnering 307,000 tweets, the judiciary finally decided to take it seriously. One year after her death, a court handed down life imprisonment for one of the suspects, and 18 years and nine months of jail time for the other.

Şule Çet davasında gerekçeli karar açıklandı. Çağatay Aksu’nun ağırlaştırılmış müebbet, Berk Akand’ın ise 18 yıl 9 ay hapis cezası aldığı kararın gerekçesi bir kez daha gösterdi ki, güç ve nüfuz gerçekleri örtemez.#SuleCetİcinAdalet

— KADEM (@kademorgtr) December 25, 2019

Another incident that drew public fury, taking Twitter by storm, was a video of a couple being attacked by two men while in their car on a highway in Istanbul last year. The video showed the men, who turned out to be brothers and the owners of a baklava franchise, breaking the wing mirror of the car and climbing on to the bonnet, despite the woman repeatedly saying she was pregnant.

The avalanche of reaction against them – more than 50,000 tweets with the hashtag #BaklavaciKardesler (Baklava maker brothers) calling for their arrest were posted – led to the police catching up with the perpetrators. They were convicted to four years in jail.

Justice for strays still an unregulated area

Violence against animals draw the ire of many Turks, including politicians and ministers. Perhaps the highest-profile case of animal abuse was in 2018, when a photo of a puppy whose four legs and tail had been cut off made the rounds on social media, prompting widespread outrage. Even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan posted a tweet.

"Animals are not property, they are living things. They were entrusted to us by God. I have given instructions to shed light on the incident… which has deeply hurt us," he said in a tweet in June 2018.Barely had his tweet been published than a suspect was arrested. But when Twitter users’ attention shifted to other issues, the person in question was released after just eight days in custody. Whether the person was indeed responsible for abusing the animal was never proven, but even if he were, he would have gone unpunished, because stray animals are not protected by the law in Turkey. And in most cases of animal abuse, finding the perpetrators can be very difficult.

A draft law for the protection of stray animals has been on the parliamentary agenda since 2012, but as yet there has been no follow-through.

Sakarya’da meydana gelen ve hepimizi hüzne boğan hadisenin aydınlatılması için talimat verdim.

— Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RTErdogan) June 16, 2018

Lack of faith in the judiciary

Generally people resort to social media when the law appears to be failing them, consolidating support for cases they believe require attention. In 2019, Vice President Fuat Oktay commented that only 38 percent of the population trusted the judiciary.

"I believe this desperate quest for justice on social media is unique to Turkey. The rule of law, mainstream media and the justice system have all become clogged; what's more, our basic rights and freedoms are constantly coming under attack," lawyer and women rights' activist Hulya Gulbahar told, touching on other issues pertaining to the system.

"When it comes to violence against women, the judicial system is sexist. The majority of judges and prosecutors are men," she added. The 2019 year-end report of the Justice Ministry revealed that a mere 35.8 percent of judges and prosecutors in Turkey are women.

In many member states of the Council of Europe, there are 12 prosecutors for every 100,000 citizens. In Turkey, with a daily average of 9,000 criminal cases, 8,000 civil law cases and 3,000 administrative cases, the number is just six. According to the World Justice Project (WJP), which examines the situation of the rule of law in 128 countries, Turkey ranked 107th in its index in 2020.

"Sentences are not implemented effectively. There are amnesties all the time. Because reforms in the judicial system are not implemented, court verdicts are always questioned. As a result, people who believe they can never be served justice by the courts resort to social media," Adem Sozuer, a professor and an architect of the Turkish Penal Code, told +90 YouTube channel, a project sponsored jointly by the BBC, France24, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle.


Social media a slippery slope

Sozuer believes this is a slippery slope, because although some cases can yield positive outcomes, other campaigns inevitably turn nasty and may lead to harassment and cyber-bullying. 

Orhan Gazi Ertekin, a Turkish judge, knows all too well what this can feel like. Turkey’s Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) launched a probe into Ertekin in May over a post in which he expressed his sadness about the passing of Ibrahim Gokcek, guitarrist with the band Grup Yorum, who died two days after calling off his hunger strike.

The band is accused of being linked to the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, a radical leftist organisation which is on Turkey's terror list and currently banned from holding concerts. In the social media, Judge Ertekin was targeted as a "terrorist sympathiser".

In a column on independent news site Gazete Duvar, Ertekin said the Board had launched an investigation into him, just one a week after a social media campaign "full of threats and insults" took off against him. A member of the Turkish judiciary, Ertekin said he was concerned for the institution and Turkish legal system for pursuing him, rather than those who attacked him over the Internet.

It is no secret that since the attempted coup in 2016, Ankara has done everything it can to undermine the neutrality of state institutions and stifle opposition among its civil servants. As a result, the Turkish judiciary is far from the vital organ it once was. Trial by Twitter therefore looks set to continue.

Ayse Karabat

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