‘Outside bounds of law’ to question who lawyers defend, say Turkey’s bar associations

The arrest warrants issued against 60 legal professionals last week violate principles of evidence gathering, and not identifying lawyers with their clients as they do their jobs, Ankara Bar Association said in a press release on Monday.

The chief public prosecutor in the Turkish capital issued arrest warrants against 48 lawyers, 7 intern lawyers, 4 dismissed judges and one law school graduate on Friday, upon suspicion of terrorism.

The related investigation, simultaneously carried out in seven provinces, seeks to uncover lawyers’ ties to FETÖ, the name Turkey uses for followers of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen who Turkey maintains orchestrated the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

“This could be a sham operation to give substance to the arguments put forth by (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and feed a perception that FETÖ has a lawyers’ unit which engages in terrorist activity and poses a risk,” Human Rights Watch Turkey Rapporteur Emma Sinclair-Webb told journalism platform P24 on Monday.

Suspects stand accused of skewing investigations “in favour of FETÖ under the guise of lawyerly activity,” a statement by the Ankara prosecutor said. The lawyers are also accused of taking on clients upon orders from the group that Turkey deems a terrorist organisation.

“Lawyers cannot be identified with their clients,” Sinclair-Webb said, adding that Turkey has de facto removed the right to defence, and restricted the legal profession as a whole.

Constitutional law expert Kerem Altıparmak told P24 that lawyers could not be criminally responsible for defending a client, even if the client has lied under oath.

“If there is no claim that lawyers have directly been involved in violent acts, these allegations are just on their lawyerly activity,” Altıparmak said. 

It is normal for lawyers to advise against their clients becoming informants, he added. “Lawyers can guide their clients as part of their job. You cannot launch an investigation on your own unless the client files a complaint over coercion, or something to that effect.”

In a joint statement, several lawyers’ associations - including the Lawyer Rights Group, Progressive Lawyers’ Association’s Istanbul chapter, Pro-freedom Democratic Lawyers, Contemporary Lawyers’ Group, and Principles First Contemporary Lawyers’ Group - denounced lawyers facing charges for choosing to represent certain clients, and said:

    “Lawyers are professionals who are independent from any and all authority, and work as a public service independent of any one client. It is unacceptable to arrest and persecute lawyers for their professional activity.”

The midnight raids to arrest lawyers were meant to serve as intimidation for all lawyers, the statement said.

Bar associations in various provinces in Turkey, including western Izmir and eastern Batman, Van, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep provinces issued condemnations on their social media accounts.

“We demand that all our colleagues detained for professional activity be released at once,” the Izmir Bar Association said in a tweet.

The Batman Bar Association referenced the Havana Principles, as did the Van Bar Association which also said the profession was under threat.

The detained lawyers were forced to reveal confidential information on their clients, and accused of crimes over their clients, Diyarbakır Bar Association said. “These operations aim to leave citizens without defendants,” it said in a statement.

The operations were an attempt to connect lawyers to terrorism, “following (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unfortunate statements on bars and lawyers,” Şanlıurfa Bar Association said in a tweet.

“The identification of lawyers with crimes their clients are accused of has become a systemic weapon against the defence as an institution,” Gaziantep Bar Association said.

Among the detained lawyers were a woman who had just given birth, and another who was eight-months pregnant, according to the Gaziantep Bar Association.

Some lawyers among the detainees had previously been acquitted of the same charges.

According to opposition lawmaker Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, one of the lawyers was asked about a call to a florist during their interrogation. The lawyer told the police that the call to the florist was made for an imprisoned client’s wife on their wedding anniversary, Gergerlioğlu said.