Viyan Zabel Kınalı, a 26-year-old attorney at law, is one of the hundreds of lawyers in Turkey whose licenses have been revoked in the last five years. In a series of tweets announcing the abandonment of her struggle to return to her profession, ongoing since 2017, Kınalı said, “I have lost faith that one day my rights will be restored. I have lost my will to live in this country and my hope to become a lawyer.”
The past five years saw the mass incarceration of hundreds of lawyers, the revocation of their licenses and the rejection of new applicants. The crackdown started to target Kınalı during her time as a student at Ankara University’s faculty of law when an anonymous e-mail to the Ankara police claimed that she was preparing for an attack that was about to bring about chaos in the capital city. The e-mail led to Kınalı’s arrest in December 2017, a day before her final exams. She was released a day after all the exams were held, and her 35-day arrest caused her to miss all the finals. She later received a six-month suspension from the university administration due to her arrest. She graduated the next year and began her legal internship. An investigation triggered by the anonymous tip cost her a whole year.
After the end of her internship in December 2019, Kınalı received her license from the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB). Shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit for the annulment of her license on the grounds that the young lawyer was under investigation for suspected ties to terrorism. As a result, an Ankara administrative court revoked the license and ruled for the deletion of her registry with the bar association until the criminal case was concluded, rendering Kınalı unable to practice law.
Kınalı described her situation as “part of a policy pursued for the last few years to eliminate dissenting lawyers.” She said while the practice began with lawyers close to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the government accuses of orchestrating a 2016 military coup, it was subsequently expanded to others who oppose the government.
Her acquittal did not change the outcome
The e-mail tipoff that cut off Kınalı’s access to her profession in fact should have been ignored since it came from an anonymous source. Yet, the Ankara police did not try to determine who had sent the e-mail, despite a court decision that Kınalı had secured to that effect. Instead, the police sent to the court a picture of Kınalı attending a demonstration in front of a building of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Another justification that the police came up with was Kınalı’s invitation to her friends to a dinner organized by the Free Jurists’ Association (ÖHD), a pro-Kurdish professional network. While Kınalı was ultimately acquitted of the charge of terrorist organization membership, she immediately faced a new investigation, this time for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda in her social media messages. Under normal circumstances, this new accusation, even if she were found guilty of it, would not impede her career. However, it did not turn out that way.
The administrative court ruled not to grant Kınalı a license until the new case was concluded. Kınalı points out the traditional sluggishness of the judiciary in the country and estimates that the entire process will take about 10 years considering the stages of first instance court, regional appeals court and the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay).
In her tweets Kınalı says she finished law school and her internship by working as a waitress on the weekends, that she was left alone in her struggle.
“I am faced with a hysteria that for more than three years has deprived me of my access to education and to my professional license thanks to the judiciary, the university administration, the police, the ministry and more,” Kınalı wrote. “In the face of such a chain of injustices, I am no longer able to feel hopeful.
“Whereas I was expecting to return to the profession by the ruling of the administrative court, the decision demonstrated to me in no uncertain terms that I cannot live under this organized injustice. Surely, this was not the only thing that caused my mental breakdown. The entire process was ruthless, and I was very alone.
“The hardest part about all this was the indifference and even complicity displayed by the executives and members of the [bar association] towards the [trouble] I was subjected to, since it was because I was standing with them that I had to confront the state.
“If I have lost my sense of justice, it is because of this state that says it will not allow me to practice law and those who left me alone in this fight,” Kınalı tweeted. “I am surprised that I was able to resist up until now.”
Intensifying crackdown on lawyers
After the failed coup in 2016, 3,947 judges and prosecutors were disbarred over alleged Gülen links, and more than 2,000 of them were arrested. It was followed by detentions and license revocations targeting attorneys.
In 2015, 42 lawyers saw their licenses revoked. The number went up rapidly after 2016. According to Ministry of Justice figures, 528 lawyers had their licenses revoked and 1,252 others faced proceedings to that end in 2019 alone.
After 2016 some 1,600 lawyers were detained, 610 of them were arrested and 450 received prison sentences of 2,786 years in total.
According to the Arrested Lawyers Initiative, a platform established with the aim of defending attorneys’ rights in Turkey, the practice of identifying lawyers with the criminal charges brought against their clients has become widespread in recent years, which makes it harder for followers of the Gülen movement and Kurdish activists find lawyers to represent them.
The TBB’s close relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan puts lawyers critical of the government in a tough spot. Ümit Kocasakal, the organization’s former president, once famously boasted in 2016 about their policy of denying licenses to people with alleged ties to the Gülen group. The current president, Metin Feyzioğlu, claims that Turkey’s justice system is going through the most brilliant era of its history.