Erdoğan trying to disarm the power of Turkey's bar associations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to disarm the country’s bar associations by imposing reforms on the regulations governing them, Cihan Aydın, the head of the bar association in the southeastern Diyarbakır province, told Ahval in a podcast.

Erdoğan previously tried to shut down the country’s bar associations, institutions known as rare critics of an increasingly authoritarian government, by targeting lawyers with decrees in the two-year state of emergency after the 2016 coup attempt, Aydın said.

The latest move against the bar associations came after they invoked the government’s wrath by condemning Ali Erbaş, the president of the state religious directorate known as Diyanet, for slurring homosexuals as “cursed” and linked to illness during the first Friday sermon of the holy month of Ramadan.

Erdoğan stood behind Erbaş in the spat that ensued when the Ankara Bar Association filed a criminal complaint against the Diyanet head, and prosecutors subsequently launched an investigation into the association for “insulting religious values”.

This was the latest in a long list of skirmishes with the government in the past year, including a protest in April against the government’s refusal to release political prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. In early May, changes to bar associations’ regulations were being floated that 50 of the associations decried as an undemocratic attempt to bring them to heel.

This interference in the associations, Aydın said, was characteristic of a government that is attempting to drown out all dissenting voices from the political sphere.

“During the state of emergency they shut down thousands of civil society organisations, associations and foundations using emergency decrees. The bar associations managed to stay standing through that, but this government won’t tolerate that,” said Aydın.

“The government won’t stand for voices that criticise its policies, and it wants to reshape the bar associations,” he said.

Reports on the amendments say the government could change the electoral system for bar association officials to one of proportional representation and may allow rival associations to form in cities. This could reduce the existing associations’ authority as they compete with pro-government organisations that spring up in the same cities, human rights lawyer Erdal Doğan told Arab News.

But Aydın said the government had not shared any information on the form that its bar associations bill will take. Instead, details of possible reforms have been revealed through pro-government media outlets.

“They’re talking about changing the system of representation. This is an intervention into the bar associations’ democratic processes,” said the bar association head.

In the current system of proportional representation, associations send a number of delegates to the central Union of Turkish Bar Associations according to how many lawyers they represent.

“If you have bars with only a few hundred lawyer members that have the same representation as those with 10,000 or 20,000 members, that isn’t democratic,” Aydın said.

The Diyarbakır Bar Association head believes that if the amendment is passed, it will spell the end of bar associations as independent institutions and human rights defenders and leave them defenceless against the government. This in turn will remove a crucial check against the government’s power from the judiciary, he said.

“They say that justice rests on three legs,” Aydın said, referring to the prosecution, courts and defence.

“Two of those legs, the prosecution and courts, have already completely surrendered and are now totally synchronised with the government,” he said. “Out of the three, it is the defence – bars and lawyers – that have managed to stay standing.

“Now they want to take away bar associations’ powers and make them sing from the same hymn sheet,” he said.