Rule of law

Investigation of Turkish bar associations

Who we’ve written to

HE Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey.

What's the issue

We’re very concerned that the Ankara Prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal investigation against the Ankara Bar Association on the grounds of “openly disrespect[ing] the religious belief of a group” (article 126(3) of the Penal Code of Turkey).

This investigation was opened on 27 April 2020 after the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint against the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Mr Ali Erbaş.

In a sermon on 24 April 2020, Mr Ali Erbaş referred to COVID-19 generally and, referencing HIV, suggested that members of the LGBT community spread disease, urging people to “join the fight to protect people from such evil”.

The Ankara Bar Association argued that Mr Erbaş’ remarks appear to constitute public provocation of hatred and hostility, an offence established in article 216(2) of the Turkish Penal Code.

There are reports that the president of Turkey and the minister of justice condemned the Ankara Bar Association for its criticism of Mr Erbaş’ remarks.

We also understand that the Diyarbakir Chief Prosecutor’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into the Diyarbakir Bar Association on the same grounds after it also spoke out against the remarks made by Mr Erbaş.

We believe that the instigation of these criminal investigations into both bar associations, as well as the endorsement by the government minister in charge of the justice system, represent a threat to the independence of the legal profession in Turkey.

We also believe the criminal investigations seem to suggest that prosecutorial independence may have been compromised in Turkey, which undermines the justice system.

These criminal investigations have the potential to erode the separation of powers, as well as the respect for the rights of members of the LGBT community, in what constitutionally is a secular and democratic republic.

Proposals to amend the legal framework

There have been reports that, after these bar associations filed their respective complaints, the Ministry of Justice and the president’s office proposed amendments to the legal framework concerning lawyers and the election processes of bar associations.

Apparently, there have also been proposals to establish alternative professional representative bodies.

We believe that members of the legal profession and bar associations have not been adequately consulted about these proposed amendments.

These measures and proposals, jointly and individually, represent an impermissible interference with the independence of the legal profession that has no place in a democratic society.

Independence of bar associations

Bar associations not only promote the interests of their members and foster professional solidarity with colleagues in other jurisdictions, they also speak out against any developments in their jurisdiction that affect the legal profession or human rights and the rule of law more generally.

Both these bar associations have acted in line with these purposes and have performed their functions appropriately.

We believe that these criminal investigations form part of a broader effort to undermine the independence of bar associations, and the legal profession more widely, in Turkey. 

What we asked for

Bar associations should be able to function as independent professional bodies, representing their members, without any interference from the executive or legislative branches of government.

We asked the government to:

  • discontinue the criminal investigations launched against the Ankara Bar Association and the Diyarbakir Bar Association with immediate effect
  • take no further measures against these and other bar associations that interfere, or could interfere, with their independence
  • withdraw all proposals to amend the legal framework concerning lawyers and other legislation or regulations that interfere, or could lead to interference, with the independence of the legal profession (either in respect of individual lawyers or lawyers’ professional representative bodies)

Timeline

24 April 2020 – Ankara Bar Association filed complaint against the head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate

27 April 2020 – investigation opened by the Akara Prosecutor's office into the Ankara Bar Association

28 May 2020 – we wrote to the president of Turkey