The European Court of Human Rights issues judgment in the case of Alparslan Altan v. Turkey

During and after the coup attempt, the Ankara public prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation in which some 3,000 judges and prosecutors were taken into police custody and placed in pre-trial detention. Mr Alparslan, a former member of the Turkish Constitutional Court, was detained on 19 July 2016 in connection with this investigation and remains in custody. Mr Alparslan was suspected of seeking to overthrow the constitutional order under Article 309 of the Turkish Criminal Code, and being a member of the FETO/PDY group (a designated terrorist organization under Article 314 of the Turkish Criminal Code) claimed to be behind the 15 July 2019 coup attempt. He was dismissed from the Constitutional Court following a plenary session held by the court on 4 August 2016. Mr Alparslan applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) challenging his pre-trial detention, and the Court delivered its judgement in this case on 16 April 2019.

Prior to applying to the ECtHR, Mr Alparslan lodged an individual application with the Constitutional Court – complaining of both arbitrary detention and a lack of specific evidence giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that he had committed a criminal offence necessitating his pre-trial detention. In addition, he maintained that the domestic courts had not given sufficient reasons for ordering his detention, that the magistrates who ordered his pre-trial detention were not independent and impartial, and that the conditions of his detention were incompatible with the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment. Lastly, he argued that the process of his dismissal had infringed his rights to a fair trial, to respect for his private life and home, to freedom of expression, and constituted discrimination.

With regard to the lawfulness of his detention and his dismissal, the Constitutional Court held on 11 January 2018 that he had failed to bring an appropriate compensation claim under Article 141(1) of the Turkish Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) and had therefore not exhausted all remedies. All remaining complaints were held to be manifestly ill founded.  

Before the ECtHR, the applicant complained that he had been arbitrarily placed in pre-trial detention, and argued there had been no specific evidence giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that he had committed a criminal offence necessitating pre-trial detention. In particular, he maintained that the domestic courts had given insufficient reasons for the decisions ordering his detention. The ECtHR examined the complaints under Article 5(1) and 5(3) of the Convention – finding Turkey to be in violation of 5(1)(c).

In its evaluation, the Court paid special attention to Mr Alparslan’s  position as a member of the Constitutional Court, emphasizing the “special role in society of the judiciary, which, as the guarantor of justice, a fundamental value in a State governed by the rule of law, must enjoy public confidence if it is to be successful in carrying out its duties” (para. 102). The Court noted that they must be “particularly attentive to the protection of members of the judiciary when reviewing the manner in which a detention order was implemented from the standpoint of the provisions of the Convention.” The Court went on to highlight the importance of the general principle of legal certainty and the requirement that any law outlining conditions for deprivation of liberty should be clearly defined, foreseeable in its application, so that it meets the standard of lawfulness.

The ECtHR found that the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of Article 100 of the CCP, which formed the legal basis of the applicant’s pre-trial detention, to be both in breach of the principle of legal certainty and manifestly unreasonable. The Court found that the national courts’ extension of the scope of the concept of in flagrente delicto and its application in the present case did not take place in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law as required by Article 5(1) of the Convention. A leading judgement adopted in October 2017 by the Court of Cassation in Turkey had held that at the time of the arrest of judges suspected of the offence of membership of an armed organisation, there was a situation of discovery in flagrente delicto – warranting pre-trial detention.

In the Court’s view, “this amount[ed] to an extensive interpretation of the concept of discovery in flagrante delicto, expanding the scope of that concept so that judges suspected of belonging to a criminal association are deprived of the judicial protection afforded by Turkish law to members of the judiciary […] negat[ing] the procedural safeguards which members of the judiciary are afforded in order to protect them from interference by the executive.” Moreover, the Court held that this extensive interpretation could not be regarded as an appropriate response to a state of emergency. Such an approach (which was not adopted in response to the exigencies of the situation as required under Article 15 of the Convention) was found not only to be problematic in terms of legal certainty, but also negates procedural safeguards affording judges independence from the executive, and has “legal consequences reaching far beyond the legal framework of the state of emergency” which could in no way be justified.  

Regarding the alleged lack of reasonable suspicion that the applicant committed an offence, a safeguard guaranteed by Article 5(1)(c) of the Convention, the Court noted that the items of evidence used to justify the applicants continued detention were gathered long after his pre-trial detention. Given that the case in question concerned his pre-trial detention, it was found that they need not  examine the items of evidence to determine whether the suspicion grounding the order for his detention was “reasonable.” Although the subsequent gathering of evidence in relation to the charge against the applicant could have reinforced a suspicion linking him to the commission of terrorist-type offences, it could not have formed the sole basis of a suspicion justifying his initial detention. The Court went on to find that “[t]he detention order was based on a mere suspicion of membership of a criminal organisation. Such a degree of suspicion cannot be sufficient to justify an order for a person’s detention.

As regards the notion of “reasonableness” of the suspicion on which the arrest or detention had to be based during the state of emergency, the Court observed that the difficulties facing Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted military coup were undoubtedly a contextual factor which had to be taken into account when interpreting and applying Article 5 of the Convention in the present case. This did not mean, however, that the authorities had carte blanche under Article 5 to order an individual’s detention during the state of emergency without any verifiable evidence or information, or without a sufficient factual basis satisfying the minimum requirements of Article 5 § 1 (c) regarding the reasonableness of a suspicion. After all, the “reasonableness” of the suspicion on which deprivation of liberty had to be based formed an essential part of the safeguard laid down in Article 5 § 1 (c).

The judgment is an important one, highlighting key issues concerning the importance of maintaining procedural safeguards– even in the context of a state of emergency. It is the first decision concerning the pre-trial detention of a judge following the coup attempt, and has the potential to set precedent for other cases concerning the ongoing detention of a number of judges and prosecutors.