The flight of nine of 10 convicted terrorists who were recently released from prison pending the outcome of their appeal is driving a whirlwind debate in Turkey about flaws in the judicial system.
The 10 men, all affiliated with the radical Kurdish group Hizbullah, had received life sentences from a lower court in December 2009 for their part in the murder of 186 people in the 1990s. [The group has no connection with the Syria-backed Hezbollah party in Lebanon.] They were conditionally released in early January in accordance with a new law restricting detention times.
Under the terms of their release, the men were required to check in with a local prosecutor every day until Turkey's Court of Appeals was due to issue its decision on his case on January 26. Haci Inan, a reputed Hizbullah leader, complied. But the nine other men did not. As their lawyer hinted they might, they disappeared soon after their release, and are believed to have left Turkey. For his efforts, Inan was taken back into custody by authorities.
The controversial release, and the complex legal process leading up to it, is stoking an angry debate in Turkey about the sluggishness of the Turkish judicial system, as well as fueling mutual recrimination between the judiciary and the government, longstanding ideological foes.
The catalyst to the release is a law that was supposed to constitute a step in Turkey's European Union accession effort.
Under Turkey's old criminal law, suspects accused of "terror" crimes punishable with prison sentences of more than seven years could be detained indefinitely. With suspects detained in some cases for up to 15 years, Turkey topped the list of countries condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to ensure prompt trial.
It was largely to avoid further censure from the rights court that, in December 2004, it passed a law limiting detention - in normal circumstances - to two years.
The 10 men released in early January, including Inan, had been in detention since 2000. "The  law was a step in the right direction," said Esin Gokacti, a lawyer who has been following the case closely. "The problem is that Turkey's legal system is close to collapse. Cases drag on for years. An appeal alone takes an average four to five years to be heard."
"The situation is catastrophic," agreed Sami Selcuk, a former chief of Turkey's Court of Appeals. Selcuk identified Turkey's highly centralized appeals system, in which final verdicts on all criminal cases are given by an Ankara court, as a major part of the problem. The Court of Appeals hands out 800,000 verdicts a year, but there are over a million cases waiting to be heard.
In September 2004, in an effort to take some of the pressure off the central appeals courts, Turkey's government passed a law foreseeing the opening of "regional appeals courts" in big cities around the country by 2006.
Six and a half years later, not one has been opened. Part of the problem is long-standing mistrust between the government and the judiciary, a traditional stronghold of secularists whose independence the government is trying to rein in.
Interviewed in the daily Radikal on January 6, current Court of Appeals Chief Hasan Gerceker complained that two urgent requests the judiciary made for new courts in 2008 were turned down by the government.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin riposted by blaming delay on a decision by Turkey's top administrative court to block the appointments of roughly 1,000 new judges and prosecutors needed for the new courts.
"We are in an impossible situation," Ergin told Radikal. "On one hand, we are expected to set up regional appeals courts to reduce the burden on the Court of Appeals; on the other hand, senior members of the judiciary claim that that will undermine the authority of the Court of Appeals."
Behind the jostling, however, both the government and judiciary seem to agree on the need for radical reform. "The situation is untenable," Hasan Gerceker said on January 14. "People are right to be critical."
On the same day, Sadullah Ergin drew attention to the rapid increase in the number of criminal cases abandoned because courts were too slow to reach verdicts within the statue of limitations: 15,000 in 2009, nearly 20,000 in 2010 and a projected 55,000 by 2014.
Analysts think one place to start reform might be the laws pushed through in 2004, ostensibly to bring Turkish law in line with European norms. Under routine circumstances, the 2004 law limits detention times to two years. But the law also gives judges the right, "if necessary," to extend detention periods to five years. What makes the law even worse, analysts say, is a later paragraph stating that detention periods for suspects being investigated by "specially commissioned" criminal courts can be twice as long again: a maximum of 10 years, according to the court decision this month on the release of the Hizbullah members.
Such provisions violate "international conventions on detention that Turkey has signed," says Riza Turmen, Turkey's former representative at the European Court of Human Rights. Turmen pointed out that the Strasbourg-based court tends to rule in favor of plaintiffs who have been detained for more than two years.
Voted through to counter international criticism of a two-track judicial system that divided crimes (and courts responsible for investigating them) into those committed against the state and those committed against individuals, the 2004 law ended up perpetuating flaws in the system, says Kursat Bumin, a columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak.
"It is the same old philosophy: as long as the state doesn't come to any harm," said Bumin. "The fact no state has ever been murdered doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.