Turkey’s Erdoğan hosts ceremony to launch judicial year, lawyers boycott

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened the judicial year with a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on Monday after weeks of tension between the government and dozens of bar associations and opposition parties who boycotted the event accusing the government of interfering with the judiciary and the courts.

Turkish courts have convicted 321 lawyers to 2,022 years in prison as part of an ongoing crackdown since the 2016 failed coup, volunteer organisation the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said in a report. Turkey is ranked 109th out of 126 countries in the 2019 Rule of Law Index prepared by international civil society organisation the World Justice Project. Activists accuse the president of blatant interference in judicial decisions and say corruption is also rife.

A total of 41 provincial bar associations, including those of the three biggest cities - Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – said they had declined the invitation to attend the ceremony, citing what they said was a violation of the principle of the separation of powers. The groups maintain the choice of venue for the event conflicts with the constitution.

"The independent functioning of legislative, executive and judiciary powers does not prevent them from liaising with the president's mission in the constitution as head of state," independent news site T24 quoted Erdoğan as saying at the ceremony. 

The president said that despite the adversity Turkey had faced due to what he called military tutelage and coups, the country had always abided by the idea of separation of powers, "which tops the will of people and an understanding of democracy built on that idea”.

Erdoğan also said the country was committed to attaining standards necessary for full European Union membership through its Judicial Reform Strategy Document, but accused EU bodies of maintaining “an obviously discriminatory attitude towards Turkey”.

Turkey announced a new judicial reform strategy in May. The European Union in its progress reports criticised erosion in the rule of law in Turkey. The EU’s executive body, the European Commission, in a report published in May, said Turkey had been experiencing considerable backsliding in the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. The commission said some 30 percent of judges and prosecutors had been either dismissed or removed following a coup attempt in 2016. 

The head of the Turkish Supreme Court, İsmail Rüştü Cirit, and the head of Turkish Bar Association, Metin Feyzioğlu, also delivered speeches during Monday’s ceremony.

"We are here because we believe that when the motherland is the issue at hand, all other matters are but details. The Turkish Bar Association is not in opposition to or a supporter of any political party,’’ Feyzioğlu said.

Cirit said a total of 175 cases had been opened against former members of the judiciary over links to the Gülen movement, a religious group the government accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. 

The leader of the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu criticised the ceremony.

He said on Twitter it was not legal for the ceremony to take place in the Presidential Palace and there could no longer be any discussion about judicial independence.

Meanwhile, members of the Ankara Bar Association released a statement at an alternative ceremony in front of the main courthouse in the capital city.

The head of the association, Erinç Sağkan, said that as lawyers who believed in the need for the judiciary to remain impartial, they stood against "any form of tyranny”.