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Erdogan’s Crackdown on Lawyers: ‘Citizens have no Effective Access to Justice in Turkey’

Stephen Delahunty reports on how professionals and members of civil society in Turkey are living under a shadow.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a ceremony to launch the TurkStream gas pipeline this year
‘Citizens have no Effective Access to Justice in Turkey’

Stephen Delahunty reports on how professionals and members of civil society in Turkey are living under a shadow.

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During the third anniversary of the Turkish coup attempt last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the public at Ataturk Airport where he vowed that “no one, no network of traitors and no terrorist organisation will be able to disrupt the unity, solidarity or the brotherhood of the Turkish nation”.

On the night of 15 July 2016, fighter jets and helicopters attacked Turkish Government buildings as tanks rolled out onto the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in an attempt to overthrow the elected Government. The coup attempt was defeated when thousands of Turks of all political stripes took to the streets to resist the soldiers, at a cost of at least 290 dead and more than 2,100 wounded. 

A few days later, the Turkish Government blamed the coup attempt on the Gülen movement, which it describes as FETO – a transnational organisation led by its exiled leader Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish Islamic cleric – and declared it to be a terrorist organisation.

As a result, many Turks are still living in the shadow of a response that has seen tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, academics, journalists, police and military officers purged or imprisoned over alleged links to the Gülen movement. The initial crackdown has gone beyond the alleged perpetrators to include dissidents, human rights campaigners and senior law-makers.

A report by the Arrested Lawyers Initiative into the mass prosecution of lawyers found that more than 1,500 lawyers have been targeted, with 599 remanded to pre-trial detention. Another 321 lawyers have been sentenced to a total of 2,021 years in prison, accused of being members of a terrorist organisation or of spreading terrorist propaganda – 143 of whom are still locked up – while the rest await their appeal to be considered. 

Around 4,500 judges and prosecutors have also been purged and the President has the power to appoint the national council that selects and appoints judges and prosecutors, meaning the executive effectively controls the judiciary.

The findings describe how crucial safeguards against ill-treatment have been abolished, such as extending the maximum length of police detention without judicial review and restricting detainees’ right to conduct confidential conversations with their lawyers.

A spokesman for the organisation said: “It has been very effective in intimidating others in remaining silent in the face of their clients’ ill-treatment.”

The Turkish Ministry of Justice has not responded to a request for comment.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published last April examined many ongoing cases in which Turkish prosecutors alleged lawyers have demonstrated a pattern of association with FETO. Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW’s Turkish director, said it demonstrated how arbitrary, lengthy and punitive pre-trial detention and fair trial violations continued routinely.

On 14 July 2017, Turkish police raided the house of Istanbul-based lawyer Mustan Kocer, ignoring his protestations while verbally threatening the 27-year-old. He spent nine months in jail after being named on an arrest warrant with 189 other lawyers. He described the abuse he endured in prison as degrading and inhumane. As educational institutions associated with the Gülen movement became caught up in reprisals, Kocer’s wife Elif, a research assistant at the Gaziantep University School of Law, was also targeted. Just 40 days after Kocer’s release from prison in 2018, they fled to Europe together. The pair have since been granted asylum in Germany for three years. His trial in Turkey is still pending.

Mehmet Kasap, 43, fled to the UK just one day after the coup attempt in July 2016. He was the President of a Lawyers Society called Hukuk ve Hayat, which was closed down by emergency decree in the wake of the failed coup and had all of its assets confiscated. Kasap’s wife, Handan, was also a judge in the country’s High Court. She was on maternity leave when an arrest warrant was issued accusing them both of participating in the coup attempt. They fled and sought asylum in the UK, but the Turkish Government has since made an extradition request to the UK.

Deman Guler is a human rights lawyer and a board member of the Izmir Bar Association in the west of the country. He described the current climate in the country as a “one man state” in which “the power of Parliament has been dismissed”.

A spokesman for the Arrested Lawyers Initiative said: “The EU, Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have let victims down spectacularly. I believe they have lost their credibility in Turkey.”

In July 2019, the Law Society of England and Wales made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the universal periodic review of Turkey, on behalf of an international coalition of legal organisations. It described tens of thousands of Turkish citizens resorting in vain to the ECHR in ever greater numbers as trust in their domestic courts erodes. Most of these cases are found inadmissible by the ECHR, which seems to believe there is still a functioning judicial system in Turkey.

The Law Society’s policy advisor for international human rights, Dr Marina Brilman, told Byline Times that the mass prosecutions have had a “chilling effect” on the legal profession.

“It means that citizens who are seeking justice are simply unable to find a lawyer who is willing to represent them,” she said. “Turkish citizens have no effective access to justice in Turkey. This means that they can only resort to international tribunals. We will continue to provide support for lawyers inside the country and those in exile, including those who bring cases to the ECHR. International solidarity is especially important for those who remain and are trying to do their job under such difficult circumstances.”

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