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Commissioner’s concerns about proposed changes affecting the legal profession in Turkey

Statement
Strasbourg 02/07/2020
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“I have taken note with concern of a bill recently submitted to the Turkish Parliament containing amendments to the Turkish Law No. 1136, which affect lawyers and their professional associations. The proposed changes would notably allow for a plurality of bar associations in provinces with large numbers of lawyers and modify the election procedures of bar associations and their Union. These changes raise particular concerns when seen against the background of the serious problems I identified in my latest report on Turkey published in February 2020. These problems include a hostile and repressive atmosphere affecting civil society in Turkey, of which professional associations, such as bar associations, are a very important part; the glaring lack of consultation and involvement of civil society in policy-making and legislation; and the very difficult situation, including undue judicial pressure, faced by lawyers in Turkey both as  human rights defenders and as a fundamental part of an increasingly hostile judicial system.

I cannot avoid making the link between these proposals and the unwarranted criticism directed in recent months at professional associations, such as bar associations and medical associations, by ruling politicians. This included labelling as “politicisation” or even “terrorism” legitimate activities of these associations trying to uphold human rights, for example in the face of hate speech directed against LGBTI persons. It is very worrying that the proposed changes have a clear potential to weaken the bar associations of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which have always played a crucial role in protecting human rights in Turkey, by allowing a plurality of bar associations in provinces with a large number of lawyers. In the light of the indications of increased partiality to political interests within the judiciary which I examined in my aforementioned report, I am also concerned that a plurality of bar associations could lead to the stigmatisation of certain lawyers, and by extension of their clients, due to their affiliation to a specific association, and further damage the appearance of impartiality within the justice system. It has also been claimed that the modified election system of the Turkish Union of Bar Associations would drastically reduce the weight of the biggest bar associations and make the Union less representative, despite the crucial role it plays within the Turkish constitutional system.

The quasi-unanimous protest of Turkish bar associations against the new proposals is understandable in such a context. I therefore urge the Turkish authorities and the Turkish Parliament not to take any hasty decisions and not to force these changes which are vehemently opposed by the profession. If reform is needed, it must take place with the full involvement of civil society, notably the lawyers themselves, and not pursue the agenda of further weakening civil society in Turkey.”