Why are lawyers being targeted in Turkey?

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The arrest of dozens of lawyers, the death of Ebru Timtik, an attorney who was on a death fast to support her demand for a fair trial, and the establishment of pro-government alternative bar associations all took place in Turkey in September.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the target of corruption operations in 2013. As a result, he has been restructuring the judicial system ever since by establishing new courts, reducing the authority of judges and prosecutors, and changing the number of members of the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK). However, a coup attempt in July 2016 was the breaking point.

After the failed 2016 coup, 3,926 judges and prosecutors were summarily dismissed over their alleged links to the Gülen movement, a religious group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara blames for masterminding the abortive putsch. Nearly 2,000 of them were arrested.

The last independent component of the judiciary was the lawyers. Particularly in terrorism cases, the work of lawyers was the target of the pro-government media. Seventy-five lawyers in Ankara and İzmir were detained in September. Rumor has it that lawyers in Istanbul are the next target.

According to data compiled by The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, which focuses on violations of lawyers’ rights, 487 lawyers were arrested in Turkey in 2016 and 2017. According to 2019 data, 143 lawyers are still in prison. With the recent police operations against lawyers in 2020, the number has now increased to 200.

New bar associations established

The second attempt of the Erdoğan government to move against lawyers was to establish new bar associations, called “Alternative Bar Associations.” A recently passed law says that any group of at least 2,000 lawyers can set up their own bar association.

This is possible in five provinces in terms of the number of lawyers, including Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.

Lawyer Ali Yıldız, one of the founders of The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, explains the purpose of the arrangement.

“The Alternative Bar Association law was passed by the parliament, but it was announced that pro-government lawyers could gather 2,000 signatures only in Istanbul. An important aim of the regulation was to change the delegate balance in the elections for the presidency of the Turkish Bar Association [TBB]. Elections for provincial bar association will be held in October. In 2021 the president of the TBB will be elected. The government has failed to establish an alternative bar, but it may be trying to influence the TBB election with the mass arrest of lawyers. At this point, it is worth remembering that there are three ongoing criminal investigations into the board members of the Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir bar associations. Another important goal seems to intimidate bar associations and prevent them from reporting serious violations of rights such as the torture and enforced disappearances of recent years. The government, which has absolute authority over the judiciary, wants to take control of the bar associations.”

A sufficient number of signatures could only be collected in Istanbul

Bars can be called the last effective institution to fight against human rights violations in Turkey. The Ankara and Diyarbakır bar associations in particular have published detailed reports on torture and enforced disappearances.

Since detainees have trouble finding a lawyer, especially in mass detentions on terrorism charges, bars are in an essential position in Turkey. In this case, the prosecutor’s office requests a lawyer from the local bar association. If the prosecutor requests a lawyer from a pro-government bar association, the risk exists that victims will be left vulnerable. Hundreds of lawyers highlighted this risk by protesting the alternative bar association legislation with a march from İstanbul to Ankara.

The court is attached to the palace

While the independence of the judiciary in Turkey was discussed within the framework of the alternative bar associations and the arrest of the lawyers, a symbolic event occurred over the weekend.

Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor Yüksel Kocaman visited Erdoğan at the presidential palace with his bride immediately after their wedding. The visit of Kocaman, who received a wedding gift from Erdoğan, has become the subject of discussion as an indication of the current state of judicial independence, or lack thereof.

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