International lawyers’ associations slam Turkish government on Day of the Endangered Lawyer

Ten international legal and human rights associations issued a joint declaration condemning the Turkish government for its “attacks against members of the legal profession” on Thursday, the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer.

“As Bar associations, Law societies, and organisations representing the interests of lawyers, we express our alarm about the increasing attacks against members of the legal profession, the breakdown of the rule of law, and the human rights violations against lawyers, judges, and prosecutors in Turkey,” the statement said.

Turkish bar associations staged a march in Istanbul’s central district of Beyoğlu on Thursday to mark the day, carrying photographs of Tahir Elçi, the Diyarbakır Bar Association Chair who was assassinated in 2015, and Progressive Lawyers Association Chair Selçuk Kozağaçlı, who has been in detention since last September.

The ten international associations, including the General Council of Spanish Law, International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and Law Society of England and Wales, said the Day of the Endangered Lawyer was designed to promote solidarity with international lawyers “who continue to perform their professional duties under enormous pressure and external interference.”

This year’s declaration focused solely on Turkey, which the declaration said had been the scene of “increasing attacks against members of the legal profession, … breakdown of the rule of law, and … human rights violations against lawyers, judges, and prosecutors.”

Instances of these have mounted since factions in the Turkish military staged a botched coup attempt in July 2016. The Turkish government blames the coup attempt on members of the Gülen religious organisations, and thousands of legal professionals allegedly linked to the movement were purged or arrested under a two-year state of emergency that ended last July.

However, international legal institutions say the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has used its increased hold over the country’s institutions to target critics with no connection to the coup attempt. Besides lawyers, journalists, opposition politicians, doctors and activists have been jailed and arbitrarily held for years in pre-trial detention.

On January 18, the head of a Turkish judicial association, Murat Arslan, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on terror charges after a two-year trial in which release requests were rejected despite a lack of evidence against him, the presiding judges were changed four times, and witnesses changed their testimony during the trial.

“Prior and after the failed coup of 2016, the legal profession in Turkey has been the target of systematic persecution and attacks, which include: arbitrary arrests, detainment, interrogation, and prosecutions,” the declaration said.

“Since 2016 to date, we estimate that more than 594 lawyers have been arrested, 1,546 prosecuted and 216 lawyers convicted,” it said.

The persecution of legal professionals is having repercussions across Turkey, the declaration said, due to instances where client-lawyer confidentiality has been violated and where lawyers have refused to represent clients out of fear of reprisals.

Legislation put in place during and after the state of emergency has increased the government’s control over the judiciary, “permanently curtailing the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession in Turkey,” the declaration said.

International legal associations including the European Court of Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists have expressed dismay that emergency legislation passed by decree has been institutionalised since the end of the state of emergency.

The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index placed Turkey as the 101st out of 113 countries surveyed. It ranked in 111th place on the index measuring constraint of government powers.

The 10 associations called on Turkey to conform to international judicial standards by guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and amending anti-terror legislation in their joint declaration on Friday.

The associations also demanded the end of the Turkish government’s “arbitrary and systematic arrest, prosecution and detention of lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and court officials” and its “interference and systematic persecution of Bar associations and Lawyers’ associations as well as the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of their members.”