Separate moves by the governments of Turkey and Iran to curb the independence of the legal profession have prompted worldwide concern.
In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party is bringing forward a measure to control more than 50 bar associations after two of the most prominent protested at a government religious official’s use of homophobic language. The Ankara and Diyarbakir bar associations are also under criminal investigation for insulting Islam.
Turkey’s independent legal profession has been under attack since the mass arrests following the failed coup of 2016. Several hundred lawyers and prosecutors remain in prison - despite the release of many offenders in response to the pandemic. The latest escalation began when Ali Erbaş, head of the government department that administers religious institutions under Turkey’s secular constitution, said in a speech that homosexuality causes disease. The Ankara Bar described the speech as an incidement to hatred.
According to local press reports, the row has brought forward government plans to change the way officers of professional bodies are elected, introducing proportional representation.
The Law Society of England and Wales is among the international bodies to express concern. Simon Davis, president, said: 'The Law Society is very concerned about the recent launching of criminal investigations against the Ankara and Diyarbakir Bar Associations.
'These latest criminal investigations demonstrate that not only individual lawyers are at risk, but that even professional bodies are being hindered in carrying out their work. These developments also do not bode well for prosecutorial independence in Turkey. Both President Erdogan and the Minister of Justice have publicly condemned the Ankara Bar Association for the complaint it filed against the head of the religious affairs directorate over alleged hate speech.'
Meanwhile in Iran, a draft bill that threatens to effectively dismantle the Iranian Bar Association has prompted outrage in the country and abroad. The draft bill would replace the current Iranian Bar Association with a ‘Supreme Council for the Coordination of Lawyers’ Affairs’, with seven members appointed by the government.
More than 12,000 of Iran’s legal professionals have jointly signed a letter to Chief Justice Ebrahim Raeesi in protest. They have been joined by the global body the International Bar Association. Horacio Bernardes Neto, IBA president, said: ’The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran intends to replace the freely-elected executive body with government-appointed officials. This poses a great threat to the independence of the legal profession in Iran and serves to reform the national bar association into an arm of government, rather than an independent, self-governing association that protects the rights and interests of Iranian lawyers, and, by extension, citizens.’