In coming months, the Ankara Regional Appeal Court will deliver its decision on the case of appeal of scores of lawyers who have previously been sentenced to between 6 and 12 years and served part of their respective sentences. If the appeal is dismissed, they will be facing spending another 3 to 6 years in prison.
It has nearly been 7 years since the Turkish Government started a crackdown on Turkish lawyers. Targeted lawyers are mostly with alleged links to the Gulen Movement as well as others who did not lend their absolute support to Erdogan following the failed coup attempt. More than 1600 lawyers have so far been arrested. 551 lawyers have been sentenced to a total of 3356 years in prison over terrorism-related charges, mostly for membership in a terrorist organisation. It is terrible to think that even after so long certain Turkish lawyers are still being persecuted for nothing but acting for persons associated with the Gulen Movement.
Turkish Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights enshrines the freedom of association. On the other hand, according to Articles 23-24 of the UN Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers, lawyers are entitled to “freedom of association and assembly” and to “form and join self-governing professional associations to represent their interests, promote their continuing education and training and protect their professional integrity”. They shall have the right to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization.
According to the indictment on which their convictions were based, all of the lawyers seem to be executive or ordinary members of a particular lawyers’ association, namely Hukuk & Hayat (Law & Life), which used to operate in Ankara but has since been shut down by a decree law during the state of emergency which was declared immediately after the failed coup attempt.
Until it was closed down Hukuk & Hayat was providing professional training, organising social events and as well as extending assistance, sometimes even financial, to trainees and junior lawyers through their arguably toughest years in the profession.
It seems that the public prosecutor just picked up the official members list from the Governorship’s office where the records of each and every association were kept and charged them with “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” despite the fact that an official report which the police prepared after looking into the activities of the association concluded that no offence was committed.
According to the indictment, the only evidence that Hukuk & Hayat was directly linked to the Gulen Movement was that it was shut down by a decree law. The court did not think it was necessary to look beyond that. The public prosecutor did not offer a shred of evidence as to how exactly such a professional organisation was being run by the Gulen Movement. He seems to have an interesting approach when linking individual lawyers to the Gulen Movement. Sometimes he uses the identity of a particular board member and his clients to link Hukuk & Hayat to the Gulen Movement. Then he links its ordinary and board members to the Movement and charges them with membership to an armed organisation.
The criminal activities which led to the conviction and imprisonment of so many lawyers are such that they not only would not constitute an offence in any jurisdiction but probably be praised.
The court considered that attending events and talks organised by Hukuk & Hayat was good evidence for establishing a lawyer’s link to an armed terrorist organisation.
The other most significant evidence incriminating the defendant lawyers was their clients. Having acted for a school, association or company which were closed down or confiscated by decree-laws was held as evidence.
According to Article 18 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, lawyers may not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions. Despite the clear prohibition to do so, Turkish courts, failing to identify any incriminating evidence against lawyers who have been prosecuted for their links to the Gulen Movement, have relied heavily on such lawyers’ client lists. If one or more of their clients were legal persons shut down in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt this was quickly
It seems that instead of looking for criminal activity, the public prosecutor looked for anything, regardless of it could indeed be a totally lawful act, to deduce a serious offence like membership to an armed terrorist organisation.
The court found that the defendant’s organising their efforts to represent certain people during police interviews were criminal activity carried out to “show the state in a bad light” or “show that the investigations and criminal proceedings which followed were unlawful”. The evidence against each and every defendant includes a list of their clients. If any one of their clients was a person or a company allegedly associated with the Gulen Movement, it was used to convict them. For instance, the fact that the clients of a defendant included a teachers’ union which was closed down by a decree law was considered incriminating evidence.
The other evidence against the lawyers includes anything and everything that the police managed to get their hands on during house searches. The sort of things which the court accepted as strong evidence to convict the lawyers in question is truly bizarre.
For instance, the fact that a defendant’s wife and father had bank accounts in Bank Asya, a bank which operated lawfully under the supervision of Turkey’s banking authority until it was confiscated by the state for its alleged links to the Gulen Movement was cited as evidence.
Again, the school report of the son of one of the defendants was cited as evidence as it was issued by a school with alleged links to the Movement.
A certificate of birth issued by Turgut Ozal University Hospital which was confiscated by the state following the failed coup was also accepted as evidence that the father of the new-born was actually a member of the Gulen Movement.
But probably the most bizarre of them all is a law book which was found in the office of one of the lawyers. The book was titled “Rights and Restrictions in Union Actions”. The lawyer in whose office the book was found and kept as evidence was acting for the members of the union which actually published the book for its members.
It is clear that this absurdity should come to an end as soon as possible although trials such as this one will remain a stain in Turkish judicial history. We call on all lawyers’ organisations to raise their voices and support their fellow lawyers in the hearing of the appeal which will be held in two weeks time, as the CCBE and European associations of judges have already done.