Turkey has been arbitrarily jailing hundreds of lawyers and putting them on trial in the aftermath of the country’s failed military coup in July 2016, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The move is part of the Turkish authorities’ major assault on the right to a fair trial and on the role of lawyers in the administration of justice.
The 56-page report, “Lawyers on Trial: Abusive Prosecutions and Erosion of Fair Trial Rights in Turkey,” examines how since the failed coup, police and prosecutors have targeted lawyers with criminal investigation and arbitrary detention, associating them with their clients’ alleged crimes.
The government brings charges against lawyers who expose rights abuses with little or no evidence of their membership in terrorist organizations. Courts have complied with the attack on the legal profession by sentencing lawyers to lengthy prison terms for terrorism on flimsy evidence and in trials that ignore fair procedure. The abusive prosecutions of lawyers have been accompanied by legal amendments that undermine the right to legal counsel for those arbitrarily detained on terrorism charges.
“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.
“Lawyers are central guarantors of the right to a fair trial, and Turkey’s willingness to flout it over the past three years is deeply alarming.”
In a period of mass arrests and politically motivated trials of journalists, rights defenders and opposition politicians on terrorism charges, lawyers in Turkey have a more critical role than ever to play in protecting the rights of suspects in police custody and defendants in court.
Human Rights Watch examined case files of trials involving 168 lawyers between 2016 and February 2019.
The Arrested Lawyers Initiative has documented the prosecution of over 1,500 lawyers in Turkey over the past three years. One third of them have spent prolonged periods in detention before and during their trials, and first instance courts have convicted 274 lawyers of membership in armed terrorist organizations.
Lawyers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that in terrorism trials, courts have become increasingly unresponsive to their petitions to have evidence critically examined or tested and to hear witnesses for the defense. Lawyers said they were little more than “extras” in court hearings. Equality of arms between the prosecution and the defendant cannot be preserved if the defendant’s lawyer is prevented from mounting an effective defense and if the adversarial elements of proceedings become little more than a formality, said Human Rights Watch.
Turkey should end the systematic abusive detention and prosecution of lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. It should allow lawyers to effectively perform their professional functions in accordance with the guarantees provided for in international human rights law, repeal state of emergency amendments passed into law restricting the right to legal counsel and end mass trials of lawyers and the arbitrary use of terrorism charges.
“Turkey’s government should end its assault on the legal profession,” Williamson said. “The Union of Turkish Bar Associations, other lawyers’ groups, the EU, and the Council or Europe have an important role to play in conveying that message to Ankara.”