Is there any other country in which lawyers are attending mass protests in the midst of the pandemic? Have you ever heard of city bar association heads taking the streets, walking for miles and being subjected to police violence and interference? Have you heard of two imprisoned lawyers on a death strike, demanding a fair trial?
While the European Council takes the so-called “judicial reforms” presented by the Turkish government seriously, the state of law and judiciary independence is under grave threat. Most judges and prosecutors are controlled or suppressed by the AKP-MHP government. Now, the last remaining independent civil rights groups, like the Bar Associations, are under attack.
Last week, the Bar Association leaders from around Turkey conducted a march to Ankara called “The Defense March.” They were “allowed” to enter Ankara following a 27-hour-long stand-off, during which they had to wait without food, shelter, or access to restrooms by the security forces.
This week, the lawyers’ protests continued in Mersin, İzmir, İstanbul, and Adana. On Tuesday, more than a thousand lawyers and supporters met in front of the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul. They protested the proposed legislation that would amend the law on changing the bar associations’ election system called on the president of the Bar Association, Metin Feyzioğlu, to resign.
As the Bar Associations took the streets, the AKP-MHP government hastily brought the new legislation to the Parliament the same day. President Erdoğan made a statement right after the cabinet meeting on Monday, saying "The poor structures of professional organizations, especially those of the bar associations, might lead to fascist problems for their members in addition to injustice in representation.”
Of course, these remarks are typical for President Erdoğan’s discourse about any oppositional voice or group: a mixture of threats and defamation in order to take total control.
AKP’s small but highly influential neo-nationalist partner MHP stated that the bar associations are under the control of Marxist ideology.
The new legislation presented by the government, coined the “Multiple Bar system” has two main aims:
To interfere with the electoral system of the bars so that little towns where the AKP-MHP alliance is stronger can gain more power in sending delegates. Currently, lawyers from big cities are the majority and tend to be oppositional. Thus, it is a plan to split and divide the bar associations that have preserved their sovereignty so far. It aims to single out critical lawyers and make them easier targets.
To affect the nature of the selection of the head of the Bar Associations. This will pave the way for the present leader, Metin Feyzioğlu, to stay in power for at least another term. The president of the Bar Associations for the last seven years, Feyzioğlu has been heavily criticized for collaborating with the AKP-MHP government, acting as more of a far-right political leader than a person of law.
The proposal contradicts the Constitution, since Bar Associations are defined as public establishments. According to Metin Günday, a law professor, these establishments are supposed to unite professions. If the legislation passes, the bar associations will be divided according to their political views, which in turn will affect people’s right to legal remedies.
Meanwhile, 23 lawyers are still behind bars, facing terror charges because they were defending their clients. Lawyers Ebru Timtik and Aytaç Ünsal, who were arrested due to secret witness testimonies, started a hunger strike five months ago. The government hasn’t acknowledged their demands for a fair trial.
Tomorrow, 80 bar associations in Turkey will be on the streets again. They will meet in Ankara for the “Great Defense Meeting” in defense of justice and freedom.