ELVAN ALPAY’S heart leapt at the news. It was January 11th and Turkey’s constitutional court had just ordered the release of Mrs Alpay’s father, Sahin, as well as another writer, from pre-trial detention. One of over a hundred journalists locked up in Turkey, Mr Alpay had been arrested on farcical terror charges in the summer of 2016, two weeks after a violent, abortive coup. He is 73 and faces a triple life sentence.

Accompanied by her mother and a few friends, Mrs Alpay drove to the prison where her father had been held, to greet him in person. She never got the chance. As she waited by the prison gates, word came that, in a move with no legal precedent (or indeed basis), a lower court had rejected the constitutional court’s verdict, and Mr Alpay would remain behind bars. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government applauded the gambit. Without a trace of irony, the deputy prime minister accused the constitutional court of flouting the constitution. Mrs Alpay says she was crushed, but not wholly surprised. “When things don’t make sense from the beginning,” she says, “you no longer feel shocked when you should.”

With the judiciary scared and depleted by purges, such Kafkaesque outcomes are becoming increasingly common. In a recent case the head of the local chapter of Amnesty International, a human-rights group, was set free by one court, only for another to send him back to prison just hours later. The same happened to a group of 19 imprisoned journalists last spring. (The judges responsible for their release were overruled, and placed under investigation.)

But this time the implications are wider and even more serious. By defying the Alpay verdict, the government has effectively disembowelled Turkey’s highest court. According to Hasim Kilic, a former chief justice, “the constitutional court has been rendered inoperative.”

Turkey’s judicial chaos is now Europe’s headache. Mr Alpay and several others have applied to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey belongs. The ECHR may well conclude that Turkey’s highest court is no longer able to provide legal remedy. This would provoke tens of thousands of judicial appeals from Turkey, which the European tribunal would have no choice but to accept, says Riza Turmen, a former ECHR judge.

A diplomatic row may be brewing, too. For Turkey and other European countries, the ECHR’s judgments are binding. If the court rules that continuing to detain journalists like Mr Alpay is unlawful, the government will be expected to release them immediately. Failure to do so could expose it to a range of sanctions, ultimately including ejection from the Council of Europe.

Mr Erdogan, who seems anxious to repair bridges with European leaders after likening some of them to Nazis last year, is unlikely to risk such a scenario. But he remains equally determined to crush any challenge to his authority. Although some of the 50,000 or so people imprisoned since the coup attempt in 2016 have been released, others are taking their place.

Amid a Turkish army offensive against Kurdish insurgents in Syria, the government is once again tightening the screws on dissent. In under three weeks nearly 600 people have been detained for protesting on social media and elsewhere against the conflict in Syria. As far as the rule of law in Turkey is concerned, the beat of the war drums might as well be a funeral march.