US law professor has no doubt Gulen trial in Turkey was political

James C. Harrington
James C. Harrington

Date posted: February 5, 2012

05 February 2012, Sunday / AKIN KARAGÜLLE, İSTANBUL

James C. Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a law professor at the University of Texas, wrote a book titled “Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen” on the trial of renowned Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen in Turkey, which ended with his acquittal being upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2008.

In an indictment he drafted on Aug. 30, 2000, then-Ankara State Security Court (DGM) Chief Prosecutor Nuh Mete Yüksel filed a lawsuit against Gülen with the Ankara 2nd DGM requesting his conviction under Article 7/1 of Counterterrorism Law No. 3713.

Yüksel claimed that Gülen had since 1989 been involved in activities to establish an illegal organization to create a state based on religion by changing the secular state structure. The indictment made no reference whatsoever to any concrete action constituting a crime as spelled out in the Counterterrorism Law. Instead, the charges in the indictment were based on Gülen’s views as expressed in print and visual media as well as his social activities. In other words, his ideas and beliefs constituted the basis for the charges against him. The Ankara 11th High Criminal Court on May 5, 2006, decided to acquit Gülen following the trial due to unsubstantiated claims. An appeal was filed with the 9th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld Gülen’s acquittal by the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court on March 5, 2008. The Office of the Prosecutor at the Supreme Court of Appeals objected to this verdict on April 4, 2008, under Article 308 of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK). The chamber, however, dismissed the objection by the office of the prosecutor on June 24, 2008. In this way, the acquittal was approved and finalized.

In his book, Harrington analyzes the course of the trial, which he describes as a political trial, and how this trial helped to greatly expand civil liberties and democracy in Turkey. He also explores how the country’s EU bid influenced reform of the country’s judicial system that led to the outcome of the trial.

How did you come up with the idea to write this book?

I had been on a trip to Turkey about three years ago and so I got interested in it, probably because of my human rights work — I’ve done a lot of travel in different parts of the world in human rights work. … I’ve always been intrigued by how other legal systems protect human rights or don’t protect human rights.

And as I looked into this I found that nobody had written about the trial that had gone on so I decided to write about it because there is a very interesting interplay that happens between the attempt of Turkey to join the European Union and the European Union’s insistence that there be changes in the judicial system and that individual rights and liberties be strengthened.

So I started to write about it. I did a lot of research and went back to Turkey twice and interviewed a number of people about the trial that actually went on a total of eight years. To me it was very fascinating, unlike a lot of political trials — and it clearly was a political trial. It was brought by enemies of Mr. Gülen in the government at the time. But unlike many political trials this had a good ending, and I think it benefitted Turkey quite a bit. Obviously it also benefited Gülen because he was acquitted and the judges ruled that all the charges against him were totally fabricated and there was no support.

How long did it take for you to finish the book?

It took me a year to write it. I spent quite a few late evenings, weekends and holidays writing it because I have a full-time job and I also teach. So, it took me a while but I was very interested and it was a work of love because it was just fascinating for me and I love to write.

You refer to the trial as a political trial. Why is it a political trial and what differentiates a political trial from a normal one?

In a political trial, the government or whoever is bringing the case … is basically prosecuting the individual because of the individual’s political views — that those views are contrary to the establishment and that this person’s views or this person’s actions pose a threat. And in Mr. Gülen’s context, he was indicted because of his views and essentially the government was saying he was trying to establish a religious state and Shariah law and … a bunch of other allegations that are totally baseless. But it was a way of discrediting him.

Under Turkish law, if he had been convicted, then the government would have tried to seize all of the institutions and schools that were related to the movement, even though there is not a direct tie. But you can tell from the indictment that the government was very much threatened by the movement because it changed the dynamic of Turkey; it had a lot to do with the rising middle class of the Anatolia region and it had a lot to do with transparency in the government. It had a lot to do with basically bringing more democracy to Turkey. So that was a threat to the established order.

For that reason, they engineered this awful, awful media campaign against him for about a year before they finally indicted him. So, it was purely political because what the establishment was doing — what the prosecution was doing — was trying to undermine Mr. Gülen’s credibility with the people, get him out of commission, and try to seize assets and schools … related to the movement.

There is no doubt in my mind it was political. There was no crime. Ultimately the judges said when they made their ruling was that there was no allegation that any crime took place whatsoever. It was purely political speech, his political ideas — or what the state thought was his political ideas — for which he was prosecuted.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the trial?

That’s very much true. I was very inspired by a lot of the people that I interviewed in Turkey that had really committed themselves to democracy and had worked really hard, and over the years and during the periods of the military coups some of the people had been tortured, and one person had suffered an assassination attempt and some people had to leave the country. I think what inspired me about this was how dedicated people were, and when you contrast it to our country, the United States, you know we have been for around 220-plus years, we’ve lost, I think, our sense of what we went through, what we fought for to become independent and to become a democracy and to become the country that we are.

And you look at a young democracy like Turkey, and I think it’s very inspiring for us as an opportunity to recommit ourselves, and I think also as a country this is the type of movement around the world that we should support as a country. Unfortunately, many times, I think that the United States gets stuck in supporting people that they have supported. And I think one of the lessons we have learned and can learn from Turkey and the Arab Awakening is that our country needs to respond to these impulses of democracy and support them and try to strengthen them. It is a question of human dignity and it’s a question of stability for the world and for the human community.

But isn’t that a conflict, Mr. Harrington, because Mr. Gülen was criticized by many? While some called him a CIA agent, others also accused him of wanting to bring a Shariah state? And these were pretty much the same arguments in the trial process. What was your conclusion?

Clearly he is not a CIA agent because when he came here for health reasons, the United States tried to deport him. They spent two years trying to deport him. So he can’t be a CIA agent when the government at the highest level, according to the judge, was trying to deport him. You see all these allegations go on and they’re just ridiculous. And you look at those in the indictment, for example, he’s a CIA agent, he’s an agent of Iran, he’s an agent of China, he’s an agent of Reverend Moon, he’s an agent of anywhere you can think of. They were just playing to the audience.

And my personal favorite one is that he was a secret cardinal of the pope. I mean that is utterly, utterly ridiculous. I am a Catholic myself and it is just absurd to think that anybody would think you could be a secret cardinal of the pope. But what it is playing to an audience and getting the audience uneasy.

One of the things I think is going on in the United States and what we call the West is that we don’t understand what secularism is in terms of Turkey. Turkey, of course, has had a secularist government — a republic — but in Turkey, secularist means something different than it does here for us.

Here, secularist means separation of church and state, but people are free to express themselves and participate any way they want, wear whatever they want, as long as their religious beliefs do not hurt anyone else. In Turkey, secularism has meant no expression in public employment or public education of religion — and this is of course where the headscarf issue comes up.

So when this is translated back to the West, it says Turkey is moving away from its secularism, or this movement wants to bring Turkey away from its secularism. There is a misunderstanding, and I think that misunderstanding comes from the way we use the word. If you tell people in the US that what Turkey is moving toward or what the movement is interested in is the sort of secularism that we have where there is a separation of church and state or a separation of mosque and state but people can still express themselves. Like here, our folks in government can wear a headscarf or whatever is their particular religious belief.

What do you think he’s after, then?

To me, when I look at the movement and Mr. Gülen it looks to me like it’s a very good effort to institute a civil society, to make our institutions in civil society, our voluntary organizations better, to reach out and help people, particularly the poor, and this has been brought about because of spirituality.

And I think to me as a Christian, this has been very impressive, and it has made me look at myself and my own religious belief and examine my own conscience about how good I’m doing in terms of my religious belief.

But I think fundamentally that that’s what this is. This is not some sort of organized, structured movement but it’s a decentralized movement. It is really people, on their own initiative, around the world, around Turkey, trying to live better lives personally and trying to help other people out.

To me, it is a very impressive movement and something I think that we in our country and in other countries ought to support.

How would you summarize your book in a few sentences?

I think if I had to summarize my book, it is a fascinating story of how democratic change was coming to Turkey, how the establishment resisted it and how the fortunate event of trying to become part of the European Union made a lot of changes in the system. And so ultimately both the trial and that whole eight years of historical context has helped make Turkey more of a democracy and I think has helped establish civil society and helped expand religious freedom and freedom of expression. I think it’s a remarkable story, a remarkable period of time for Turkey.

What is your message for people in Turkey?

First of all, I would commend the people in Turkey for their struggle to become more of a democracy and to participate. And I think whether or not people belong to the movement or want to be part of the movement is irrelevant in the sense that I think people should be challenged in their own lives to try to do what the movement wants to do and that is, number one, develop a closer spirituality and a closer relationship with God, and the second part of this is to reach out and help people. Because that is what life is about — helping people. It is not about selfishness. It is not trying to get as much money as you want. So that’s what the movement teaches and whether people agree with the movement, they should look at that particular message and look at their own lives and then try to live a better life.

Who is James C. Harrington?

James C. Harrington is the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a professor of law at the University of Texas. Born in Lansing, Michigan, Harrington received his law degree in 1973 from the University of Detroit, where he had also earned a Master’s degree in philosophy in 1969. Upon graduation from law school, Harrington worked for 10 years as the director of the South Texas Project in the Rio Grande Valley near McAllen. Much of his legal work there involved asserting the rights of farm laborers and poor people in the valley, especially in its colonias. He handled major cases involving police brutality, discrimination and the United Farm Workers. Harrington moved to Austin in 1983 to become legal director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Inc., a position he held for seven years. During this time, he handled ground-breaking cases involving free speech, privacy and equal rights for farm workers. He also helped organize the East Austin Pro Bono Clinic, which continues to operate to this day.

In 1990, Harrington founded the Texas Civil Rights Project, a statewide, community-based, non-profit civil rights foundation that promotes social, racial and economic justice and civil liberty, through the legal system and public education, for low-income individuals. The project has offices in Austin and San Juan, Texas. Harrington has handled numerous landmark cases involving grand jury discrimination, police misconduct, privacy, voting rights, free speech and assembly, and the rights of persons with disabilities.

Since 1994, under Harrington’s guidance, the Texas Civil Rights Project has published human rights reports on such issues as pervasive racial and ethnic discrimination by Anderson County law enforcement, hate crimes in Texas, accessibility of courthouses and courtrooms in Texas for people with disabilities, peer sexual harassment in Texas schools and the employment practices of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Harrington has served on human rights delegations to Honduras and Nicaragua (1984), Chile (1987), Israel and Palestinian territories (1988), Guatemala (1992 and 1998) and Mexico (Chiapas, 1999). He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas’ Law School and teaches undergraduate writing courses on civil liberties and famous American trials. He has also taught at St. Mary’s University’s School of Law.

Source: Today’s Zaman

Source: Today's Zaman , February 5, 2012

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