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Turkish lawyers detained

09 Mar 2022 / Human rights Print

The trial

A number of European lawyers, academics, and human-rights groups attended the trial of two Turkish lawyers who have been detained in Turkey for almost eight years without any findings being made against them. Robert Purcell was an eyewitness to the proceedings.

Silveri Prison is located about two hours outside Istanbul in the Republic of Turkey. On approach, it seems approximate in size to a small Irish provincial town. This prison also has a courthouse, the dimensions of which are similar to that of the 3 Arena in Dublin.

Approximately 20 heavily armed soldiers patrol the area between the parking zone, the prison on the right, and the courthouse on the left. There are numerous armed but polite security staff guarding the entrance to the courtroom, backed up by airport-like security measures.

Inside the courtroom are a further 30 armed policemen allocating seats to certain people, and arguing with journalists – a couple looking bemused at the whole situation.

There are plenty of lawyers, friends, supporters, and observers bustling around too. All seem to have one common pastime – smoking cigarettes. The small smoking room with a little window open in the corner is the great equaliser, as dozens of lawyers, soldiers, policemen, and liberal-democracy supporters all gather for nicotine relief – as well as respite from the queuing, the searching, and the court hearing.

All of this commotion is for a court hearing that involves two softly spoken and humble lawyers – Barkin Timtik and Selcuk Kozagcli – who are on trial for ‘representing a threat’ to President Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.

These trials have been meandering their way through a Byzantine court process, which has taken them back and forth through courts of different jurisdiction since 2013. They have spent much of that time in custody. Indeed, Kozagcli was previously convicted and sentenced to over 11 years’ imprisonment, successfully appealing that conviction, but was then charged with new offences.

A sibling of Timtik’s, Ebru, died on hunger strike awaiting her own charges in 2020. That very tragic event was the subject of a Gazette.ie article (1 September 2020). Things have deteriorated since then. Among the charges brought against both lawyers are being a member of the People’s Liberation Party, representing victims of the Soma mine disaster, and representing members of the Kurdish PKK group.

Fellowship

At the invitation of the Istanbul and Turkish Bar Association, as well as the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (a group of academics and legal professionals from Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Norway, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Ireland), law societies and human-rights groups attended the court in order to show solidarity and support for their Turkish colleagues.

They were also there to support freedom of speech, the rule of law, the UN Convention on Human Rights, and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in this amazing country that bestrides both East and West.

This trial was due to have reached its final stages on 5, 6 and 7 January this year. In a surprising development (which, on the basis of previous experience should not have been unexpected), there was an attempt by the prosecution to introduce highly prejudicial and very questionable evidence (apparently originating with the Police Intelligence Agency in 2007) at a very late stage.

This documentary evidence appeared to originate in either The Netherlands or Belgium, with unaccredited sources, and was presented to the defence at the last minute.

A former prosecutor representing one of the accused addressed the court, questioning its validity. This is against a backdrop of 13 witnesses whose evidence has been accepted by the court in written form, but who have not attended court, nor have they made themselves available for cross-examination. Numerous statements from anonymous sources have been accepted as evidence by the court.

The accused addressed the court, as did their legal representatives, and numerous other lawyers appearing as amicus curiae. This included the president of the Istanbul Bar Association, Mehmet Durakoglu, and a sitting MP. A letter was read to the court, signed by a number of European bar associations (including the Law Society of Ireland), expressing their concern at the proceedings.

An everyday occurrence

The unsatisfactory outcome was that all of the accused continue to be remanded in detention until 23 March this year, which means that the accused have been detained for almost eight years without any findings being made against them.

This trial is one of a series – and perhaps the most serious – although there are others involving groups of 20 and 40 lawyers who have been charged with membership of the Progressive Lawyers’ Association.

Their ‘crimes’ consist of representing people who have spoken out against the president and the current regime, political opponents, families of miners who were killed in high-profile mining tragedies, pro-democracy protestors, LGBT spokespersons, students, Kurds, and the PKK.

These trials have taken on the characteristics of Kafka’s protagonist Joseph K (The Trial) or the task of Sisyphus; at present, the stone remains resolutely at the bottom of the hill. This is only one aspect of an all-out assault on political opponents of the Justice and Development Party, which came to power in the mid-2000s under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Apart from these proceedings, the State continues to persecute lawyers, the sole purpose of which is to intimidate and undermine any lawyer who represents those whose views the State finds inimical.

The internationally recognised legal principle designed to protect the independence of lawyers – that lawyers should not be associated with their clients’ causes – seems to have no application in Turkey at present.

Metamorphosis

After the trial was adjourned on 5 January, all of the visiting lawyers were invited to an address by the president of the Istanbul Bar Association at its headquarters. The president expressed his sincere gratitude in welcoming his colleagues from all over Europe.

Turkey is a country of 84 million people and Istanbul a city of 16 million. The bar president emphasised that this was now an ongoing crisis within the profession and the judiciary. The support from the rest of Europe was invaluable.

All of the representatives from the various bar associations addressed the president and undertook to raise support for the Istanbul Bar Association among their members. Any publicity or attention that can be brought to bear on these ongoing trials and never-ending detentions is crucial.

There is a great crisis within the Turkish judiciary due to the manipulation of appointments by the ruling party in conjunction with the country’s president.

There is no separation of powers in Turkey. Within the profession and the judiciary, survival and advancement depends on acquiescence. The trial process is now, itself, the sentence and the instrument of oppression. Every time a lawyer is put on trial, the entire profession in Turkey is effectively on trial, in direct threat to their independence.

The silence of the sirens

The day after the meeting with the Istanbul bar, we attended a preliminary hearing in the trial of a number of students at the crescent-shaped Caglayan Courts in Istanbul. It related to a protest at Bogazici University in January 2021.

This Istanbul institution was set up by an American philanthropist after the Crimean War. It was established as a liberal progressive university that was to educate all, regardless of religion. It has in the region of 16,500 students.

Over a year ago, the elected dean of the college was removed summarily by the government. He was replaced by a presidential appointee who, it was felt, would transmit the policies of the government more suitably within the university.

Around that time, a poster was produced of one of the holy sites in Mecca with a rainbow flag in the corner. The students responsible were suspended, which subsequently led to an on-site student protest.

There were approximately 250 students present, but there were undercover police among them. Those members of the police force are alleged to have been acting as agent provocateurs within the crowd, trying to stoke up a frenzy.

As the newly-appointed dean was leaving, his car was prevented from progressing down the road. Two students sat on the bonnet, and a large number of arrests were made. The students who sat on the car were placed in detention. They remained in detention from the time of their arrest in January 2021 until their court appearance on 7 January 2022. Fortunately, they were released.

The ultimate decision in the case is still awaited. One of these students has been allowed to leave Turkey while his case proceeds. Another had been invited to join the research team at the Cern Laboratory in Switzerland, but he has been unable to take up that opportunity.

The Turkish president referred to the actions of the students in sitting on the car as an act of terrorism. Subsequently, three deans at the college who attended the court hearing in order to support these students were removed from their posts. A hard-line rector of the university was appointed by president and, since that day in court, two more deans have been summarily removed by the regime.

A journalist has recently been charged with insulting the president. This is not an unusual charge in the Turkish courts – thousands of people have been similarly charged and sentenced during the past 11 years.

Her insulting statement? “When the ox climbs to the palace, he does not become a king, but the palace becomes a barn.” Sedef Kabas is at risk of a four-year prison sentence if convicted.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Robert Purcell
Robert Purcell is a solicitor and criminal-law specialist. He is a member of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, and a member of the Gazette Editorial Board.