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Turkey’s troubles

Troubled World

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of columns by Philip Slayton about how the legal profession is faring around the world.  

The legal profession in Turkey is under assault and needs our support.

It’s a troubled world, but why should we worry? Here in Canada, we’re sitting pretty.

If you’re a lawyer in Canada, you have a comfortable pew. You have status and prestige (I know, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it). You get respect (most of the time). You make a living (probably not as good as you had expected). You’re part of a functioning and important system of justice largely free from corruption, and that feels fine (OK, the Canadian justice system is far from perfect, but it’s not a joke either). Most of all, being a lawyer in Canada is not dangerous. You don’t have to fear the state and its emanations. If you criticize or sue the Queen or her representatives, you won’t be beaten up, jailed or shot.

Would that it were like this throughout the world, but it’s not. In many countries, lawyers are on the front line. In many countries, to be a lawyer is to put your comfort, your freedom, even your life, in jeopardy.

Start by taking a look at Turkey, once thought to be a reasonably progressive, democratic and secular state with a good future. Now, its legal system is close to collapse. I’ve been talking to a lawyer friend of mine in Istanbul about what’s going on. Recently, she wrote to me whimsically, “What claims to be ‘law’ in Turkey would be unrecognizable to the average bear.” Turkish lawyers are harassed and oppressed by the government. It’s been going on, and getting worse, for years. There are many recent examples of what the Turkish legal profession has endured.

Fifteen Turkish human rights lawyers were arrested in January 2013. Even the Law Society of Upper Canada took notice and issued a solemn statement. “The Law Society is deeply concerned about situations where lawyers who work for the protection and respect of human rights are themselves targeted for exercising their freedoms and rights under international law.”

In May, 2013, there were huge street protests against government plans to raze Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park to make way for a shopping mall. The demonstrations quickly became more about police brutality and the growing authoritarian rule of the Turkish government — than about the destruction of a park. Many Gezi Park demonstrators were arrested and then arbitrarily denied official legal aid. Outraged, a number of Turkish lawyers volunteered their services to the arrested demonstrators.

Forty lawyers were arrested on June 11, 2013. Many of them were beaten and kicked by police. On June 12, a crowd of 3,000 lawyers convened outside the main Istanbul courthouse to protest the detention of their colleagues the day before. They chanted, “Everywhere Taksim, everywhere resistance.” They were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. (Once again, the LSUC issued a statement condemning the actions of the Turkish authorities.)

In 2016, the International Commission of Jurists reported on the Turkish situation. It noted that a number of lawyers were facing criminal charges connected with their professional duties. The ICJ said it was “concerned that the independence and security of lawyers is under increasing threat in Turkey, with potentially serious consequences for the capacity of lawyers to play their proper role in the administration of justice, and the protection of the rule of law and human rights in the justice system.”

The plight of Turkish lawyers became even worse following the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey and the state of emergency subsequently imposed. In November 2016, the Turkish government suspended the activities of 370 non-governmental associations including three lawyers’ associations with a human rights focus. In April, international observers estimated that 350 lawyers had been detained without charges and were being held in jail under very poor conditions. A further 900 lawyers were being actively prosecuted.

And on it goes.

In theory, the Turkish legal profession looks much like the Canadian legal profession. There are several local, self-regulating bar associations. The Union of Turkish Bar Associations is a member of the International Bar Association and the European Bar Federation. Part of the TBA’s official mandate is to strengthen and protect the rule of law and human rights. Lawyers wear gowns to court just like we do. That’s the theory. As we see, the practice is quite different. In practice, the Turkish legal profession faces an authoritarian government determined to quell any dissent or opposition and deny Turkish lawyers their rightful role in protecting those unjustly pursued and condemned by the government.

A Turkish lawyer faces a horrible dilemma. What to do? I think there are three choices. One is to blend into the background, refuse engagement, risk little or nothing. Who could blame someone who followed this course? A second choice is to be “realistic,” endorse the regime, embrace the government, keep the wheels of justice turning after a fashion and hope for official appointment and glory and perhaps better days. In my opinion, any lawyer who makes this choice betrays their profession. A third choice is to resist in any way you can, privately and publicly — to be one of those lawyers who volunteered to help the demonstrators arrested in Gezi Park or who joined the June 12, 2013 demonstration outside the Istanbul courthouse. A hard choice, indeed, a dangerous choice, but the honourable and right choice, the choice of a lawyer who believes in justice and is committed to the rule of law.

Our colleagues in Turkey who make the hard choice should not stand alone. I began this column by noting that Canadian lawyers are sitting pretty. Why should we worry about what’s happening to our colleagues in Turkey? Because it’s the right thing to do. And because the price for not speaking out is immense.

“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” — Martin Niemöller

Philip Slayton’s latest book, How To Be Good: The Struggle Between Law and Ethics, will be published in October.


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