Crowding in courthouses continues, raising questions on the effectiveness of measures taken against the spread of Covid-19; precautions pose new challenges for journalists following hearings in courts
CANSU PİŞKİN, ISTANBUL
After the first Covid-19 case was registered in Turkey back in March, several safety measures were introduced to curb the spread of the virus. During this period, in which all cultural and artistic events were postponed, people were told to “stay at home,” partial curfews were imposed, courthouses across the country also heightened precautions.
The Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) announced on 13 March that all trials and other legal procedures at courthouses would be postponed until further notice. On 4 April, Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül announced that all trials would temporarily be put on hold until 30 April. However, following the Cabinet meeting on 7 May, this period was extended until 15 June. As the precautions taken against the virus were gradually eased, by 1 June Turkey entered the “new normal” phase with businesses reopening and millions going back to work -- under the condition of wearing face masks in closed spaces, following hygiene rules and practicing social distancing. Let us now take a look at how the “new normal” is affecting courthouses.
Hygiene and social distancing measures
On 16 June, the day when courthouses reopened, social distancing rules were disregarded. The most overcrowding was noticed at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan, billed as the largest courthouse in Europe. Long queues formed outside of the building’s three entrances. Citizens who were allowed in after their temperatures were screened by security guards did not pay attention to the social distancing markers in front of the x-ray machines in the entrance. After images of these scenes were shared on social media, barricades and tapes were placed at entrance C.
On all floors of the courthouse posters have been hanged reminding people to follow the safety rules. The stairs, elevators, halls and courtrooms have been rearranged to decrease the risk of transmission. Posters were hung on the walls next to the elevators asking visitors to not ride the elevator without wearing a protective face mask, to face the wall when inside the elevator, and reminding that no more than six people would be allowed per ride. However, these guidelines were not always followed.
Courthouse employees said the bathrooms were being cleaned twice as often. The hand dryers placed in the bathrooms were replaced with paper towels. Hand sanitizers were placed in front of courtrooms.
Hearings without spectators
Another measure introduced concerned the monitoring of trials: courts now have the discretion on whether or not to allow spectators inside the courtrooms during hearings. Some courts choose to only allow defendants and lawyers; relatives or friends of defendants, and the press are sometimes not permitted. One such example on 16 June was the trial of Etkin news agency (ETHA) reporter Adil Demirci overseen by the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
Another court, the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, where the trial of former Özgür Gündem editors took place the same day, the press was allowed to monitor the hearing but no other spectators were allowed in the courtroom. Members of the press practiced social distancing and wore their face masks while in the courtroom. The court panel, the prosecutor, the lawyers, the scribe and the bailiff did not remove their face masks throughout the hearing.
This discretion is likely to hamper courthouse journalists’ efforts to access news, at least in certain cases: Since many of the detained defendants connect to the hearings via the judicial video-conferencing system SEGBİS, their statements to the court are usually not transcribed in the minutes. Therefore, journalists who are not allowed to monitor those hearings will not be able to find out what happened during the hearing. To overcome this situation, courthouse journalists will either choose one representative to monitor each hearing, or monitor the hearings in turns. But still, the possibility to monitor hearings is at the sole discretion of presiding judges.
Despite all the precautions and restrictions, courthouses are not sufficiently prepared to prevent the spread of the virus. On 18 June, news broke on social media that Istanbul’s 6th Consumer Court, 8th Family Court, 35th High Criminal Court and 32nd Criminal Court of First Instance were put under quarantine. Asked if these claims were true, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office only confirmed that the 6th Consumer Court had been quarantined.