Turkey is “arbitrarily” jailing hundreds of lawyers, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. The imprisonments are part of an ongoing legal crackdown following the failed 2016 coup attempt.
“The numbers of lawyers facing prosecutions is far, far higher than in any recent era we’ve seen,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW senior Turkey researcher.
“Turkey is in a very different era, in terms of this misuse of criminal charges,” she added, ”every professional group is targeted in one way or another. However, it’s particularly alarming when lawyers are targeted as well, as they are there to protect you when you are in court. It sends a chilling message to wider society.”
The 56-page report is called “Lawyers on Trial: Abusive Prosecutions and Erosion of Fair Trial Rights in Turkey." It details how lawyers representing clients accused of terrorism offenses are increasingly becoming targets for prosecution and arbitrary detention.
“Putting hundreds of lawyers in jail and 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 should be of grave concern to everyone in Turkey and internationally,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “
The HRW report sited Arrested Lawyers Initiative, a Turkish rights group, which reported in April (2019) 1,546 lawyers prosecuted, of which 274 were convicted of membership of a terrorist organization, and 598 held in pretrial detention for varying periods.
“In the last three weeks, one case just concluded,” said Sinclair-Webb, “18 lawyers got up to 18 years in jail, for membership of a terrorist organization. For defending left-wing clients, and being associated allegedly with an outlawed left-wing revolutionary group.”
HRW blames recent changes to Turkey's anti-terrorism laws in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt for the surge in lawyer prosecutions. “This extremely vague wording was intended to allow the authorities to ensnare the greatest number of people in their dragnet,” the HRW report said.
“Some of these prosecutions appear to have come about in reprisal for their efforts to document police abuse and other human rights violations and to protect the rights of their clients,” the report added.
“It's extremely difficult now for lawyers in Turkey to look into human rights violations and to protect the rights of their clients in detention because they themselves often get targeted with a prosecution,” said Sinclair-Webb.
The Turkish government robustly defends its anti-terrorist legislation and ongoing crackdown insisting the conspirators responsible for the coup attempt remain a threat to democracy. Ankara blames U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers in Turkey, for the botched military take over, a charge he denies.
Lawyers interviewed as part of the HRW report acknowledge people accused of supporting Gulen find it difficult to get legal representation.
“Many (lawyers) still refuse to accept those cases. In our profession, we shouldn’t have this fear; this didn’t happen after the September 12 (1980) military coup. In those days there wasn’t the broken society we have today,” said an anonymous lawyer in the HRW report.
“In one police report on a lawyer-client I represented, the police had written, ‘He was a lawyer for FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) militants, and so he aided and abetted FETO,’” the lawyer added.
“Everyone has the right to a lawyer, whether there are a mass murderer, a terrorist, or a coup plotter. It does not matter; you have the right to the lawyer,” said Sinclair-Webb. “
"For lawyers to be afraid to represent people who are teachers and civil servants, and all other professions who are put on trial on bogus terrorist charges is a testament how much the political crackdown has made everyone fearful.”
HRW cites the growing frustration among lawyers who continue to take anti-terrorism cases. The lawyers claim they have become bystanders in hearings, being increasingly ignored by the judges along with due process.
Lawyers associations and groups representing the legal procession have been shuttered in the post-coup crackdown, according to the HRW report.
The report calls for international institutions including the European Commission and Council of Europe to put pressure on Ankara, but is also looking to the global legal profession to take a stand.
“Bar associations in Europe, but also the U.S. and Canada they have a positive role to play,” said Sinclair-Webb. “We call on bar associations around the world to highlight the situation in Turkey where there is a major erosion of fair trial rights in Turkey.”