Turkey has sentenced 321 lawyers to 2,000 years in jail since 2016 - report

Turkish courts have convicted 321 lawyers to 2,022 years in prison in an ongoing crackdown that has seen more than 1,000 lawyers prosecuted on terrorism charges since 2016, volunteer organisation the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said in its 2019 judicial year report.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government launched a crackdown against legal professionals after a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

“As of today, more than 1,500 lawyers have been prosecuted and 599 lawyers arrested. So far, 321 lawyers have been sentenced to 2,022 years in prison on the grounds of membership of an armed terrorism organisation or of spreading terrorist propaganda,” the report said.

Tens of thousands of civil servants, academics, soldiers and judicial workers have been prosecuted for alleged links to the Gülen movement, an outlawed religious group the government blames for the coup attempt.

Many others have been charged with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed militant group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for more than three decades.

The government says the purges and arrests are vital to safeguard the country against security threats and says its former allies in the Gülen movement infiltrated the judiciary and used their positions to try to capture the state from within.

But the government has used the anti-terrorism legislation “to oppress its dissidents, particularly lawyers, journalists and politicians,” the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said.

“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,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said in a report in July.

The problem has reached unprecedented levels in recent times as Turkish courts regularly consider “lawful and peaceful acts and statements protected under the European Convention on Human Rights” as proof of criminal activity, she said.

Meanwhile, legal safeguards that protect lawyers from pre-trial detention and require the Justice Ministry’s authorisation to prosecute them have been ignored, the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said.

Lawyers have also routinely been prosecuted due to the identity or affinity of their clients, the report said, citing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At the same time, a presidential decree has damaged the independence of bar associations by granting the presidency the authority to inspect them and suspend their chairperson or board members, the report said. Bar associations are considered independent professional bodies with the characteristics of public institutions, according to Turkey’s constitution.

The Arrested Lawyers Initiative published its report to coincide with the new judicial year, which began on Sunday. The decision to hold Monday’s ceremony marking the beginning of the judicial year at the Presidential Complex in Ankara was greeted by a wave of protests from Turkish bar associations over the damage to judicial independence.

Dozens of bar associations announced they would boycott the ceremony, which they said conflicted with the constitutional article detailing the president’s relationship with the judiciary. They also said it conflicted with ethical standards outlined in a legal reform package announced in May.

The decision to hold the ceremony at the presidential compound has highlighted the grave concerns with the rule of law and separation of powers in Turkey, Ankara’s bar association said in a statement.

Turkey ranked 109th out of 126 countries in the 2019 Rule of Law Index prepared by international civil society organisation the World Justice Project.

The report said Turkey was among the countries with the least constraints on government powers and had one of the worst records on fundamental rights.