They were either tools to stifle dissent and pursue Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's enemies, or they were a badly needed - if sometimes abused - way to ensure democracy in Turkey and take on criminal gangs.
Whichever way Turks looked at the country's so-called special authority courts, it looks like their days are numbered after a seven-year run, during which they presided over trials of Kurdish militants, journalists and Turkish army officers accused of plotting a coup.
On Wednesday, the Erdogan government signaled it planned to bring legislation to parliament within the next few days that would abolish the courts.
"It's certainly a significant step," Andrew Gardner, a researcher on Turkey for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International's, told The Media Line. "The prosecution handled by these courts has been one of the most long-standing human rights problems in Turkey, particularly people being prosecuted for taking part in demonstrations, writing articles and other conducts protected by international human rights standards."
Although Turkey is being showcased as a model for the Middle East as a democracy existing side-by-side with Islam - Erdogan's mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country has had a spotty record on human rights. Ironically, the special courts were set up in 2005 to replace state security courts, which were operated by the military and had come under criticism from the European Court of Human Rights.
But rights activists and opposition parties quickly came to realize that the special courts were not a big improvement. They were used to enforce a much criticized anti-terrorism law, which bans "propaganda" deemed helping terrorists and belonging to a "terrorist organization" without defining either term. The law has been used to arrest journalists and political activists.
Indeed, many Turks asserted that the courts were being used to pursue the political enemies of the AKP. In addition to pursuing Kurdish militants, the courts' prosecutors have launched large-scale investigations with names like Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and OdaTV, which are based on indictments claiming failed coup d'etats against the AKP government.
Critics say the evidence is murky and that the accused are held with little or no evidence for extended period. In the Sledgehammer case, for instance, some 365 army officers have been charged, and hundreds of suspects have been rounded up and held in lengthy pre-trial detention. Others targeted included academics, journalists and social activists.
The battle of the courts and their value in part reflect a deeper divide in Turkey between an emergent elite, led by the AKP, that advocates more Islam in Turkey against a veteran elite strongly represented in the army that remains loyal to the secularism of the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
But even Erdogan has criticized special prosecutors for acting as if they were "a different power within the state" and said the courts had been useful at times but also harmful, noting public discontent at the way they had worked.
Indeed, the courts' prosecutors clashed with the prime minister earlier this year when they sought to question his intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, over alleged secret peace talks with representatives of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants. Some say it that incident that finally moved the government to rein them in.
"The prime minister is trying to amend the law at a breakneck speed because these courts attacked Hakan Fidan," said Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party. "Why didn't he show the same sensitivity to other people who have been behind bars for years without even knowing on what charges they have been arrested?"
Its defenders, however, say the courts are needed to prevent anti-democratic forces in the army from re-asserting control over Turkey. Among the strongest advocates of the courts is the Gulen movement, an Islamic group led by the Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen and believed by many to have close ties with the AKP.
Today's Zaman, an English-language daily affiliated with Gulen, warned that abolishing the courts threatens to open a "Pandora's box " in Turkey. "It may lead to the release of hundreds of gang members, drug traffickers and terrorist and terror suspects, prompting public outrage against the ruling AKP," the newspaper said on Wednesday.
An indication of the power and influence of the movement, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, who is responsible for the government's judicial reform program, vowed there would be no let up. "This amendment will not change the nature of these sorts of crimes known as 'coup crimes'," he said. "If there is a crime, a reason for arrest, then the courts will continue to move accordingly even after these amendments."
In fact, no one yet knows what would be the impact of disbanding the courts. Hurriyet, the Turkish daily that broke the story, said they would be replaced by a regional court structure to deal with crimes such as coup-plotting and terrorism. But was not clear how this would affect the existing cases.
Gardner of Amnesty International said abolishing the courts would only address part of Turkey's human rights challenges. Not just the special authority courts, but the entire judicial system is inefficient and lacks impartiality in addressing controversial cases, he said.
"The removal of the special courts system would be a significant improvement," Gardener told The Media Line. "However, what is also required in a fundamental change in the anti-terrorism law and its very broad definition of terror is more vital to addressing the problem."
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