The Turkish Constitutional Court issues a judgment in the case of Ayşe Çelik (Application no 2017/36722)

On 9 May 2019 the Turkish Constitutional Court, as the last instance domestic court for reviewing human rights violation complaints, issued a judgment in a case concerning the criminal conviction of the applicant, Ayşe Çelik, for her statement made on a TV programme.

 On 8 January 2016, the applicant, a teacher from Diyarbakir, called into a popular TV show and criticised ongoing violence and the death of civilians during counter-terrorism operations taking place in south-east Turkey. In a part of her comments, she stated " [a]re you aware of what is going on in the east, in the south-east of Turkey? Here, unborn children, mothers and people are being killed. Be sensitive as an artist and human being. See, hear and lend us a hand.  Do not let those people those children die; do not let the mothers cry anymore. People are struggling with starvation and thirst, babies and children too. Don’t remain silent.”

In response to this statement, the Bakirkoy Public Prosecutor filed an indictment against the applicant with a criminal charge of disseminating propaganda in support of the PKK pursuant to Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law. On 26 April 2017, the Bakirkoy 2nd Heavy Penal Court convicted the applicant and sentenced her to one year and three months imprisonment. In its decision the first instance court held that the applicant had justified and legitimised the actions of a terrorist organisation by presenting the state’s military operations against a terrorist organisation as actions causing the death of innocent people, amounting to propaganda in support of PKK.

The Istanbul Regional Court of Justice rejected the applicant’s appeal on the same grounds with a final decision and the applicant’s conviction became final. The execution of the applicant’s sentence was postponed for six months for maternity as the applicant gave birth. Subsequently, she had served part of her sentence together with her baby until her request for postponement of the execution of her sentence was once again granted.

On 27 October 2017, the applicant submitted an individual application to the Constitutional Court complaining that her conviction had constituted a violation of her right to freedom of expression, the prohibition of punishment without law and the right to a fair trial, as guaranteed under Articles 10, 7 and 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Whilst the application was pending before the Constitutional Court, the applicant’s lawyers commissioned an expert opinion to be submitted in the proceedings. In September 2018, the expert opinion prepared by Professors Helen Duffy and Philip Leach of the TLSP, on guiding principles to be taken into account for the prosecution of propagandising of terrorism in the light of Turkey’s international human rights obligations and general rules of criminal law, was submitted to the Constitutional Court. The text of the expert opinion can be found here in English and Turkish.

Acknowledging that propaganda of terrorism restricts freedom of expression, the Constitutional Court held that to determine lawfulness special attention must be paid to whether or not a given statement incited to violence and posed a risk of danger for provocation of terrorism. The Constitutional Court observed that Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law did not criminalise any expression associated with terrorism but only those justifying, praising or inciting to resort to methods constituting coercion or violence used by a terrorist organisation. For propaganda of a terrorist organization to be criminalised, the Constitutional Court referred to the two conditions set out under Article 5 of the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, namely, the special intent to disseminate propaganda for terrorism and the risk that  a terrorist offence would be committed. 

To assess the danger and the necessity of interference, the Constitutional Court called for a complete analysis of the circumstances of each case taking into account content, context, intention, timing and impact of the statement as a whole. On this basis, the Constitutional Court disagreed with the lower courts’ analysis and found that the applicant’s statement was a call for stopping the conflict in the region, irrespective of its causes, and aimed at raising public awareness of ongoing incidents of deaths and grievances during security operations, which was an issue of public interest. In this connection, the Constitutional Court reiterated that the freedom enjoyed for expressions related to matters of public interest was a broad one, calling for compelling reasons to justify any interference, and that acts or negligence of public authorities were subjected to public scrutiny in a democratic society.

Observing that the applicant’s statement had not praised or glorified those who took an active part in conflict nor had it aimed to instill hatred, the Constitutional Court decided that the applicant’s conviction under Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law did not correspond to “a pressing social need” and thus, her right to freedom of expression under Article 26 of the Turkish Constitution was violated. In the operative part of its judgment, besides awarding the applicant a sum of compensation, the Constitutional Court urged the first instance court to review its decision according to its ruling and to take measures to cease the violation of the applicant’s right. Upon this ruling, the applicant has been released from prison.

It is an important decision in which the Constitutional Court pointed out guiding principles, deriving from both international law and the case-law of the ECtHR, to be taken into account by the domestic legal authorities in the interpretation and application of Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terrorism Law. However, the Constitutional Court seems to have overlooked the applicant’s complaints about the broad and imprecise nature of the impugned criminal provision resulting in arbitrary prosecution of peaceful expressions. Thus the Constitutional Court missed the opportunity to have addressed the inherently problematic aspects of the  the offence of propagandising of a terrorist organisation, as formulated under Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terrorism Law, which does not provide a clear and foreseeable legal basis for restrictions that enable individuals to anticipate the consequences of their conduct and to prevent abuse by authorities. In the end, as the violation was found on the basis of not complying with the condition of necessity in a democratic society and not on the ground for legality of inference, the decision may not have as broad an impact on the protection of freedom of expression in Turkey as it should. Moreover, despite the applicant’s lawyers’ complaint under Article 18 of the ECHR, the Constitutional Court failed to examine or even refer to the applicant’s allegation that the real aim of her conviction was to silence or punish her for having made a public comment perceived to be critical of the authorities’ conduct.

Despite these shortcomings, the decision provided for Article 10-compliant interpretation of Article 7(2), which has the potential to set course for the many similar cases, such as those concerning the Academics for Peace, pending before the domestic courts, bearing in mind that in the recent years the impugned provision has been extensively applied to restrict legitimate criticism and peaceful expressions in Turkey. It remains to be seen whether the Constitutional Court will continue adopting this approach and reinforce the protection of freedom of expression in its future rulings, given the apparent fluctuations in its judicial performance. It is also to be seen whether the prosecuting authorities and instance courts will feel bound to comply with this ruling and refrain from unjustified prosecutions of peaceful expressions, like the one raised in the present case.