Turkey's parliament passes controversial bar association law

A bill proposed by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to amend legislation on bar associations has been passed by parliament, Cumhuriyet reported on Saturday.

The bill was passed with the votes of the AKP and its parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); with 251 lawmakers voting to pass the legislation, and 163 voting against.

The bill says bar associations that have more than 5,000 members can split into other rival groups so long as they have at least 2,000 lawyers.

Opposition parties and the presidents of 80 bar associations say the bill is an attempt to silence lawyers critical of the AKP government.

This proposal was adopted after two minor amendments were made on clothing and internships.

After the approval of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the bill will be published in the Official Gazette and will come into law.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said on Monday it would apply to the country's Constitutional Court for annulment of the legislation if the articles on decentralising bars are approved.

The legislation significantly reduces the representation of lawyers from Turkey’s main cities at the national Union of Turkish Bar Associations.

The AKP argues that the formation of more bar associations would ensure a more democratic and pluralistic system. However, the majority of such associations, as well as many lawyers and activists, argue that the real intent of the draft law is to disempower existing associations in larger cities which have criticised the government for its violations of human rights and erosion of the rule of law.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said the law would further undermine judicial independence in Turkey.

“If the amendments are passed, the real and likely risk is that judicial authorities whose independence and impartiality is seriously in question, will seek to identify the political opinion of lawyers on the basis of their membership of politically divided bar associations, and to allow this to improperly influence and bias their judicial decision-making. This will further damage the already weakened impartiality of the judiciary,” HRW said in a statement. 

“As lawyers are a key element of the justice system, it is doubtful whether public confidence in the independence of the justice system can be maintained when bar associations are divided along political lines,” HRW added.

The Turkish government’s own statements about the plan, and the timing and means by which it is being introduced, shows it has a political purpose rather than any aim to advance legal standards, HRW said.

“Whenever a critical bar association reveals a human rights violation or criticises the government’s human rights policies, a counter-statement would be likely to be issued by another bar association, weakening the value of the critique and politicising the matter,” HRW said.