According to the records of the Turkish Union of Bars, there are 74,492 lawyers in Turkey registered at 78 bar associations as of Dec. 31, 2011. Some 45,000 lawyers – or 60 percent of the lawyers in Turkey – are concentrated in three bars: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The Istanbul Bar, by itself, consists of 38 percent of all lawyers in Turkey. Its 21 bars represent 86 percent of all lawyers, while 48 Bars with less than 300 members represent 6,898 lawyers in total, a number that constitutes 9 percent of lawyers. In other words, the Istanbul Bar represents four times more lawyers in Turkey than these 48 bars combined. October is election month for bars. Every two years in October, lawyers go to the polls and select their presidents and board members. This October there were polls in 78 of the bars of Turkey, which held their general assembly meetings and selected their new presidents and administrative boards, determining how the bars will be governed in the coming two years. In addition, new delegates representing each bar to attend the General Assembly of the Union of Bars were elected in these polls.
The Bar elections which were made at a time when the need for a just rule of law for human rights was apparent and were carrying great importance for the requirements of state of law, right to demand justice and a fair trial, and concrete realization of justice.
The headline on the front page of daily Cumhuriyet dated Oct. 23, 2012 was: “Arrested to avoid escape.” In the details on page 13, it was explained thus: “Parliamentarian Engin Alan from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who was sentenced to 18 years in the Sledgehammer Case(1) and is already being held in prison, has been arrested again five months after his release decision in the Feb. 28 case investigation, following the objection of the prosecutor.” The news added that the second arrest decision was given by a “freedom judge,” which is a new class of judge solely empowered to give decisions on the release or arrest of suspects related to terror and organized crimes.
In another piece of news on Oct. 18 it was reported in the media that criminal proceedings against singer Pınar Aydınlar were suspended on condition that she would not sing folk songs for three years (this was in the same city in which she had previously sung in a public event that was claimed to have been organized in support of a number of leftist organizations).
If you put these events, which are just two examples of dozens of similar incidents that take place every week, alongside the ones in the notorious Silivri proceedings, it is easy to understand the current situation of the rule of law in Turkey.
It is in such an environment that the lawyers were not only electing their presidents and board members, but they were also putting forward their opinions and preferences regarding the current rule of law in Turkey. In the largest bars, representing 70 percent of lawyers in Turkey, (İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Antalya, Bursa, Eskişehir, etc), groups opposed to the government won the elections with an increase in their votes.
We have long been witnessing increased tension in the country, with polarization in every field. After all, it became apparent that the ruling government projected these tensions and reorganized the judicial system with the Sept. 12, 2010 referandum in order to suppress public opposition through the establishment of the specially authorized courts. The bar elections were made in an environment where opposition and crime were deemed synonyms through the use of custody and arrests as a tool for political goals, so even the organized sections of the public became hesitant to react to injustices because of the fearful environment and judicial power that has become a tool of punishment for the holders of political power.
The bar elections that were made at a time when the need for a just rule of law for human rights was apparent, and they carried great importance for the requirements of a state of law, and the right to demand justice and a fair trial. They were also important because the lawyers represented the free wing of the justice system at a time when the judiciary has otherwise given up its independence, and their choices would define what kind of legal system they were supporting. Thus, at Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir bars, the victory of the groups – with increased number of the votes – that are clearly against the “Silivri law” was a clear message to the government and to the public about the views of lawyers. Lawyers revealed their aspirations for standards of universal law to be applied, as well as their worries about the government’s actions on the judiciary.
The most concrete fact revealed by the bar elections, materialized by the identities of those chosen to be on the boards of the bars, is that the government’s interventions in the judicial system following the 2010 referendum and its current practices do not have the consent of lawyers. It is clear that currently we are faced with the reality that Turkey is living through a judicial problem, and the bar elections put forward this fact boldly. However, it also must be evident that the problem of fair trials in Turkey has exceeded the point of being solved simply by the activities of the various bar associations. Thus, current anti-democratic threats, which were disguised by the veil of legislation, could only be eliminated and reciprocated by a strong stand developed by the collective efforts of all stakeholders in the legal profession, gaining the backing of parties in the public concerned about issues related to democratic society. The bar election results give hope for that, and at this point the bars are faced with an unavoidable duty – to lead the public and parties in the judiciary.
The decisions taken and preferences put forward at the general assemblies of bars in October 2012 have features to lead the wishes of the public. It was expected that the general assemblies would certainly attract attention, and when compared to previous years the increased interest of the public to the election results is an important and positive development, demonstrating the public’s sensitivity on these issues. There is no doubt that the results were not well received by the ruling government, and it is known that the government is preparing to realize its desire to curb opposition bars via legislation or the promotion of eager prosecutors and judges. We expect these preparations to accelerate and materialize in the coming period, and the investigations opened into the president and the board members of the Istanbul bar are still continuing. In this context, it has to be kept in mind that this threat in fact constitutes an offense against the right of people to seek justice. However, the task of sharing this problem with the public lies with the bars and the concerned groups in society.
Consequently, the boards of the bar associations, empowered by their general assemblies, must establish necessary connections with the public and work to generate a public opinion to actively protect the right to a fair trial, the order of the law, democracy, and protecting the values of the Republic. They must help people understand that the right to legal remedies cannot be effectively exercised without a lawyer, as well as attend to social issues and inform the public about the true features of laws. In short, they must display a legally adequate and effective opposition stance.
(1) The recent Sledgehammer and Ergenekon Cases are based on alleged activities to destabilize and eventually topple the country’s conservative-Islamist government. In these cases, military officers and their supposed civilian accomplices are accused of membership of a secret network, dubbed the “Ergenekon terror organization” after an ancient Turkish myth.