Attorneys, candidates voice grievances ahead of bar association presidential elections

The Istanbul Bar Association is to elect a new head this week at a time when several hundred lawyers are behind bars, and the independence of the country's judiciary has been called into question.  

Candidates for presidency hope to reform the Istanbul Bar Association, which is one of the world’s largest with more than 29,000 members.

Fikret Ilkiz, who is running for president of the association as an independent candidate, said the election was taking place in an "environment in which there is an attempt to ignore legislative power and in which the confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary has been eliminated."

Fikret Ilkiz
Fikret Ilkiz, independent candidate

According to the Incarceration of Turkish Lawyers report released in March this year, 580 lawyers have been detained, and 103 given long-term sentences.

Many have criticised the Istanbul Bar Association for failing to react. Lawyer Diren Cehavir Şen told Ahval News detentions had risen since the 2013 Gezi protests – the biggest anti-government demonstrations since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Diren Cevahir Sen
Diren Cevahir Sen, Lawyer

“Since 2013, the profession of lawyers has been under systemic attack,” Şen said. The current head of the Istanbul Bar Association Mehmet Durakoğlu, Şen said, had “not lifted a finger in the face of increasing attacks. When we encountered the arbitrary, unlawful, and unfounded practices at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office, the president of the Istanbul Bar Association was nowhere to be found.”

Nine candidates are in the running to replace Durakoğlu, who has been president of the Istanbul Bar Association since 2016 and previously served three terms as vice-president between 2010 and 2016.

Lawyer Ilknur Alcan voiced similar criticism of arbitrary arrests and the failure of not only the Istanbul Bar Association, but also the Turkey Bar Association to act as a buffer between attorneys and the government.

Ilknur Alcan
Ilknur Alcan, Lawyer

“When our colleagues at the Istanbul Bar Association were forcibly taken into custody, the bar administration was silent. The Turkey Bar Association and the Istanbul Bar Association discriminate based on the political views of their lawyers,” Alcan said, adding "I do not want to say racism but the Istanbul Bar Association has been dominated by nationalist view in recent years.

Attorney Eren Keskin, a candidate representing the Libertarian Democrat Lawyer’s Group, also said discrimination over political views was a problem. If elected, Keskin promises to “stand by all the lawyers who have been detained due to expressing thoughts or statements and won’t discriminate against them with regard to their opinions”.

Eren Keskin
Eren Keskin,  a candidate representing the Libertarian Democrat Lawyer’s Group

A more proactive bar association supporting defence attorneys could ease the stress of the threat of possible arrest. Lawyer Yücel Sayman said this was a significant issue and defence lawyers needed legal immunity similar to that of members of parliament.

“You cannot arrest the defence. During a defence, you cannot be threatened with a penalty or through discipline. This is called defence immunity. Of course, that is if there is democracy. There’s no defence when there’s a threat of punishment,” he said.

Yucel Sayman
Yucel Sayman, Lawyer

Alcan criticised the bar associations for failing to react to the arrests in August of the so-called Saturday Mothers – a group of women who have for years held weekly vigils to protest the disappearance of their relatives.

“The administration of the Istanbul Bar Association remained silent in the face of the unlawful, undemocratic, and unethical treatment of the Saturday Mothers. In events that affect society, bar associations must defend human rights. The Istanbul Bar Association did not do this,” Alcan said.

The major issue in Turkey’s judicial system is its lack of independence, Sayman said. That hampers the ability of attorneys to build a defence.

"The appointed judges are young. They've been commissioned to make arrest warrants. Unfortunately, some judges say that it would be better not to have a legal defence. The problem with judges stems from this mentality, which is backed by the incumbent administration. To face these problems, the bar associations don’t have effective outlets, tactics, or strategies,” he said.

By the end of May 2017, the Turkish government had purged nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors accused of links to the failed coup attempt of July 2016. It meant one in four judges and prosecutors were replaced.

Başar Yaltı, another candidate to head the Istanbul Bar Association, said the problem was the lack of real democracy within the organisation.

Basar Yalti
Basar Yalti, candidate to head the Istanbul Bar Association

“There’s a single-man rule at the bar association right now. There is an oligarchic structure in the administration,” he said. “I was there at one time but resigned and left. The reason I resigned stems from the fact that they have the same mentality as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is a single-man regime.”

“There’s no understanding of democracy within the Istanbul Bar Association’s administration. Those who do not believe in democracy cannot demonstrate democratic and participatory governance,” Yaltı said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.