Lawyers On Trial In Turkey

A report published this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details how the Turkish government has been arbitrarily jailing lawyers and putting them on trial ever since the failed military coup d’état in July 2016. The report highlights the extent of the government crackdown on lawyers, and specifically criminal defence lawyers defending people accused of terrorism. Often, the government’s unjust detainment of lawyers is an attempt to silence harmful accusations brought against them by a lawyer’s defence of the accused. Accusations include police abuses and other human right violations perpetrated by the state; there have  been reports of lawyers being intimidated by police before court proceedings. Research for the report was carried out from July 2018 to February 2019, and involved interviews conducted with 35 lawyers across Turkey; however, archival research dates to the events of July 2016.  It is the role of lawyers to protect the rule of law and defend human rights, so when over 1500 lawyers have been prosecuted since July 2016, the right to a fair trial has become the exception, not the rule.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, says, “Putting hundreds of lawyers in jail or on trial, and restricting their ability to act for people in police custody and in court, shows the dire state of Turkey’s criminal justice system,” and he warns it should not be ignored by an international audience. This report targets one of the many human rights abuses perpetrated by the twelfth President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Before now, international figures have been extremely critical of Erdoğan’s government. A Bloomberg article was written in September 2018 about a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdoğan in Berlin. It highlights how Merkel’s hope for reconstructive talks, regarding diplomatic relations between the two countries, fell short because she could not ignore the “profound differences” between Germany and Turkey about what constitutes “a free, democratic, open society”.

HRW has made a series of recommendations to the Turkish government, E.U. member states and Turkish Bar Associations regarding the unlawful detainment of lawyers. “Everyone has a right to a lawyer,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW senior Turkey researcher. Detaining lawyers on flimsy terrorism charges or conspiring with defendants is an attack on both the rights of an individual and the integrity of the democratic process.

This situation is representative of the current political climate in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The gradual shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government has meant an increase in conservative, bordering on authoritarian, policies. These policies, especially those enacted under the state of emergency that only ended in July 2018, have censored media, restricted judicial processes and warranted mass arrests and detainment. Erdoğan’s policies show no possibility of slowing down either because, HRW states, that on March 20th, 2019 an Istanbul court convicted 18 lawyers on unsubstantiated terrorism charges. Among the lawyers convicted, 11 received prison sentences ranging from 8 years to 13 years 6 months, and one received a sentence of 18 years and 9 months.

However, Erdoğan’s authoritarian grip over Turkey has been challenged, reports the Guardian, because recent local elections reveal his government is “losing control of Ankara and [is] on track to lose Istanbul.” Erdoğan’s reaction is being closely watched by all; if he were to wrongly exercise his “newly expanded presidential powers” the people may demand a wholesale change of governance. Therefore, to “end the assault on the legal profession” (HRW) both the public and the international community must make a stand. Only then can the hundreds of lawyers in jail have a chance at reclaiming their right to a fair trial.

Jonathan Boyd