Lawyers' struggle for independence in Turkey continues

Lawyers in Izmir have staged a sit-in to protest against a draft law that undermines their independence
Abogados protestando participan en una manifestación contra un proyecto de ley del gobierno sobre el cambio del sistema de colegios de abogados el 10 de julio de 2020, en Ankara AFP/ADEM ALTAN

AFP/ADEM ALTAN  -   Protesting lawyers take part in a demonstration against a government bill on changing the bar system on July 10, 2020, in Ankara

The authoritarian drift and political repression to which dozens of lawyers, journalists and academics have been subjected since the 2017 constitutional reform has jeopardised the rights and freedoms of Turkey's citizens and transformed the balance of power. The 2017 referendum in Turkey completely changed the country's history. The constitutional reform that was narrowly approved by the citizens that day turned the then parliamentary system into a presidential system, in which Erdogan, as the country's "strongman", has the authority to control all three branches of government.

In Turkey, the judiciary consists of a system of lower courts, the National Court of Appeals and the Constitutional Court. The latter deals with all matters related to the compatibility of laws and administrative acts with the Constitution. However, in some cases it also has the power to act as a High Court. 

Los abogados que protestan sostienen carteles en los que se lee"La defensa no se rinde", "Sin defensa no hay justicia" y "No hay colegio de abogados"  AFP/ADEM ALTAN
AFP/ADEM ALTAN-Protesting lawyers hold signs reading "Defence does not give up", "No defence, no justice" and "No bar association"

The power move is aimed at exponentially increasing government interference within the legal profession in order to influence this important branch of the national legal system. This has sparked protests by lawyers, most recently at the Izmir Bar Association in western Turkey where they staged a sit-in, issued a joint statement, calling on the executive to repeal a draft law that jeopardises the effectiveness and independence of the institutions. They also called on the regime to stop attacks on members of the profession.

Meanwhile, Turkish lawyers continue to demonstrate against a draft law presented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that seeks to decentralise the bar associations by establishing alternative associations in major enclaves such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, where almost half of all lawyers in the country are registered. In addition to the aforementioned decentralisation, the legal text promoted by the AKP in the Turkish Parliament also aims to change the electoral system of the executive board of the various Turkish bar associations in order to break the hegemony of the three largest organisations so that the new entities that are to be integrated will have greater weight in the bar associations. 

El presidente turco Recep Tayyip Erdogan (I) habla con el presidente del Tribunal Supremo de Apelaciones, Ismail Rustu Cirit AFP/ADEM ALTAN
AFP/ADEM ALTAN-Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l) speaks with the President of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Ismail Rustu Cirit.

The lack of trust in judges and prosecutors loyal to Erdogan's government and the continued imprisonment of lawyers has meant that those who want to raise their voice and voice their opinion have to pay a high price. After the failed coup in 2016, more and more lawyers and activists agree that the practice of changing judges during a trial is very common. Lawyers see this as a way to exert control over the courts, Istanbul Bar Association president Mehmet Durakoglu warns that by using the judiciary as a political tool to try its opponents, Erdogan's government "has achieved what it could not do by political means" through elections.

Una foto tomada el 10 de mayo de 2019 muestra una gran pancarta que cuelga del edificio del Colegio de Abogados de Ankara y en la que se lee "Estamos en completa confrontación" en el centro de Ankara AFP/ADEM ALTAN
AFP/ADEM ALTAN-A photo taken on May 10, 2019 shows a large banner hanging from the Ankara Bar Association building reading "We are in complete confrontation" in central Ankara

Almost four years after the coup took place, more than 91,000 people have been imprisoned and around 150,000 people have been dismissed for alleged links to Fethullah Gülen. Arrests have continued. For example, Turkish police launched an operation in February to arrest more than 700 people, including officials and military personnel, who may have links to the movement of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen (FETÖ). And with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the government's response has been along the same lines.

Since that failed coup, the Turkish authorities have regularly launched arrest campaigns under the pretext of quashing the Gülen community, which is paradoxical given that the cleric was a great ally of Erdogan's during his first years in power. This purge has jeopardised Turkey's impartiality and justice system. The president of Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals, Ismail Rustu Cirit, believes that one of the main consequences is a shortage of experienced judges and prosecutors, he told Reuters news agency. In addition, the absence of specialised staff and the constant arrests have increased the workload of the Turkish judiciary. 

 Abogados veteranos que protestan contra un proyecto de ley que regula la organización de los colegios de abogados AFP/ADEM ALTAN
 AFP/ADEM ALTAN-Veteran lawyers protesting against draft law regulating the organisation of bar associations

President Erdogan has found in the judiciary an instrument of power control. The thousands of judges and prosecutors who have been dismissed since the failed coup have been replaced by young graduates with little or no experience. At least 45 per cent of Turkey's approximately 21,000 judges and prosecutors now have three years' experience or less, according to estimates provided by Reuters news agency based on Justice Ministry data.