Turkey has prosecuted some 1,600 lawyers, arrested 615 since failed coup: report

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Turkey has prosecuted more than 1,600 attorneys and arrested 615 of them on terrorism charges since a failed coup in 2016, according to a newly released report from the Arrested Lawyers Initiative, an advocacy group defending lawyers’ rights.

According to the report, titled “The Crackdown,” 474 lawyers had been sentenced to a total of 2,966 years in prison for terrorist group membership or disseminating terrorist propaganda as of Dec. 10.

Turkey survived a coup attempt in 2016, which the government accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group that focuses on science education and interfaith and intercultural dialogue that is inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, of orchestrating. The abortive putsch was followed a two-year-long state of emergency declared by the government.

The Gülen movement strongly denies any involvement.

“Laws with an overly broad definition of terrorism and membership of a criminal organisation and the judiciary’s tendency to stretch them even further is not a new problem in Turkey, as attested in numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights,” the report said, adding: “This problem has reached unprecedented levels in recent times. Prosecutors, and increasingly also the courts, consider lawful and peaceful acts and statements protected under the European Convention on Human Rights as proof of criminal activity.”

Critics label Turkey’s anti-terror legislation as broad and vague due to the definition of “terrorism” in Article 1.

The law could “be used for politically motivated prosecutions of political opponents, human rights defenders, and journalists, particularly for alleged ‘membership of a terrorist organization,” UN rapporteurs stated in a periodic review in 2020.

“In conclusion, the report finds that the Turkish government’s ongoing crackdown breaches the right to liberty and security and freedom of association of lawyers, abolishes safeguards against torture and diminishes the independence of Bar Associations,” a press release by the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said on Friday.

Prominent lawyers and jurists from around the globe have expressed concerns about Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on attorneys.

“The CCBE (the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe), as the voice of European legal profession, is very concerned about the continued derogation of the essential rights of lawyers and the lack of respect of their independence in Turkey over the past years. We have seen a systematic and continuous violation, in hundreds of cases, of several of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, including Principle 18 which clearly states that lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ cause in the exercise of their functions,” Stefan von Raumer, chair of the Human Rights Committee of the CCBE, was quoted by the Arrested Lawyers Initiative as saying.

According to the report, lawyers have particularly been targeted due to the identities or affinities of their clients.

Scores of lawyers who were defending Gülen-linked suspects have been arrested due to alleged Gülen ties in the last five years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the movement, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle. Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following the coup attempt.

“The DAV (the German Bar Association) wants to express its serious concern over the ongoing intimidation of lawyers in Turkey. There is no doubt that in Turkey actually not all lawyers are able to carry out their professional duties without fear of reprisal or harassment. This is a great danger for the indispensable independence of the administration of justice and the rule of law,” Dr. Sylvia Ruge, CEO of the DAV, was quoted as saying.

Lawyers detained on trumped-up charges are questioned about their professional activities such as the types of cases they litigate and the number of cases related to suspects alleged to have links with the Gülen movement; contractual and monetary relations with their clients; how they find their clients and the average fee charged; and their professional relations with other lawyers arising from basic lawyering practices, according to the report, citing an Amnesty International statement in 2020 on the mass arrest of lawyers in Ankara at the time. 

“The systematic and widespread persecution of human rights lawyers in Turkey since 2016 is increasingly worrying. Turkish authorities have been routinely arresting and jailing human rights lawyers on entirely illegitimate charges. These unfair prosecutions and trials violate the most fundamental principles of human rights. It is alarming that Turkey has been defying the European Court of Human Rights by refusing to comply with its rulings,” Catherine Morris, executive director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, stated.

According to the report “the efforts and cooperation of the international organizations, together with any others which may join them in the future, is paramount in exerting pressure on Turkey to respect universal human rights and to bring its criminal law in line with the standards specified by the European Convention on Human Rights and that is acceptable to the European Commission and the European Union.”

Bar associations in European countries should form a unified front against Turkey’s rights violations to help stop the criminalization of Turkish lawyers, according to the Arrested Lawyers Initiative.

“After Turkey’s coup attempt, the Turkish government started an abusive mass prosecution of lawyers across the country,” Eleonora Mongelli, vice president of the Italian Federation for Human Rights (FIDU), said.

“As stated in this important report, hundreds of lawyers have been detained, prosecuted and convicted due to alleged terror-linked offenses. These people are suffering inhumane treatment in overcrowded prisons; they are facing indefinite preventive detention on the basis of vague accusations, and heavy sentences issued after unfair trials, just for doing their job.”

The FIDU urged the Turkish government to respect universal human rights and to bring its criminal law “in line with the standards specified by the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as to safeguard Council of Europe standards.”

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