Not one country has joined the Law Society in speaking up for Turkey’s persecuted lawyers. That has to change.
Imagine the following scenario: years ago you were the lawyer who represented an unpopular defendant (Mr O) who had been convicted of terrorism offences. When you went to the police station to attend Mr O you were fingerprinted and searched five times before you were allowed in.
While you interviewed Mr O, a police officer sat in the room tape-recording your interview and making notes. You were not allowed paper or writing implements. Three years have passed without you seeing Mr O. He has since been kept in isolation.
Then the police came to your house at 4am. They woke your family and searched your house, traumatising your children. They took away computers containing confidential client information relating to all your other clients, and other items. Your office was also raided and client files and computers removed. You have been in custody since.
After your arrest you discovered that 45 other lawyers were arrested on the same day as you. They had all acted for Mr O over a 10-year period. You all face charges that you are members of a terrorist group and have been passing messages from your client to members of this group.
For months your own lawyer was unable to access the prosecution file to determine what evidence was relied on in relation to the charges against you.
You have discovered that the police studied the contents of your confidential client files seeking evidence to incriminate you; and that before your arrest they were monitoring your home and office phone calls. They had been recording confidential phone conversations between you and your clients, your colleagues and your family.
They were also following you.
The evidence in support of the indictment against you includes transcripts of these calls. In many of those calls, you were giving legal advice to clients. The indictment also contains details of legitimate conferences you have attended and articles you have written. All of these things are relied on as evidence against you.
You have now been in pre-trial detention for 500 days. Bail has been consistently refused but no reasons given. Some of your co-accused have been granted bail but most have not. Your trial continues and you have no idea when it will finish.
This Orwellian nightmare is not a fiction. It is the fate of 46 lawyers arrested in November 2011 in cities throughout Turkey. Their cases have been followed by the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee for the last two years. The client in question is Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist organisation which has been locked in battle with the Turkish state authorities for over 20 years.
The lawyers have now all been released on bail. Some were in pre-trial detention for well over two years before the court in which the trial was proceeding was abolished and a new judge appointed released them on bail. The trial has continued from where it was left in the old court. New judges who have not heard any of the previous evidence propose to continue with the trial as if they had been there from the start.
The arrest of these lawyers is linked with thousands of other arrests which have taken place in Turkey since 2009. Most of those arrested have allegedly had some connection with a Kurdish organisation established by Ocalan, the union of Communities in Kurdistan (or KCK). In all some 8,000 defendants have been charged with terrorist offences. They include politicians, journalists, academics and other human rights defenders as well as lawyers. More lawyers and journalists are locked up in pre-trial detention in Turkey than in any other European state.
Since January 2013, the Turkish authorities have been talking to Ocalan to try and broker a peace in relation to Kurdish issues in Turkey. In March 2014, on Ocalan’s orders, the PKK began a ceasefire.
There have been numerous hearings as the case against the lawyers crawls through the courts. Each hearing has been separated by three months. They have all taken place in conditions of high security and surrounded by police in full riot gear with water cannon who have filmed all those attending, including international observers.
A common theme among all defendants was their conviction that they were being prosecuted because they were ‘doing their job’, that they were being judged because of the client/lawyer relationship. ‘The government are talking to Ocalan but we are prosecuted for doing so’ was a point made frequently. Others claim the trial was essentially throwing aside their identity as lawyers while they were protecting the fundamental position that any client can choose a lawyer and any lawyer can choose a client.
The defendants spoke with one voice with regard to their conviction that they had all been prosecuted only because of their legitimate role as legal advocates. Many spoke with great eloquence, with passion, and without fear of the consequences for themselves. For western lawyers struggling to make sense of this apparent persecution of their professional colleagues in Turkey, their determination is inspirational. They deserve the support of the international legal community.
On 27 January the UN in Geneva held the second ‘Universal Periodic Review’ of Turkey’s human rights record. The Law Society used its UN special consultative status to raise the issue of the persecution of lawyers in Turkey. Not one country representative mentioned the issue.
Tony Fisher is senior partner of Fisher Jones Greenwood and a member and former chair of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee