Chairs of Turkey’s provincial bar associations stage a sit-in demonstration after police blocked the group from marching to Ankara to protest a new draft law. The new law is set to divide the legal profession along political lines and has been strongly opposed by bar associations. June 22, 2020.  © AP Photo

(Istanbul) – The Turkish government’s plan to allow for multiple bar associations appears calculated to divide the legal profession along political lines and diminish the biggest bar associations’ role as human rights watchdogs, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said today. The current bar associations have not been consulted, and 78 bars out of 80 signed a statement opposing the plan.

Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists have published a question and answer document explaining the draft law, scheduled for a vote in parliament in the coming days. The document outlines the government-led effort to reduce the influence of leading bar associations, reflecting the executive’s growing dissatisfaction with the bar associations’ public reporting on Turkey’s crisis for human rights and the rule of law.

“Turkey’s prominent bar associations play a key role in defending fair trial rights and scrutinizing human rights at a time when flagrant violation of rights is the norm in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government move to create multiple bars and dramatically cut leading bars’ representation at the national level is a clear divide-and-rule tactic to diminish the bar associations’ authority and watchdog role.”

The proposed amendments provide that in provinces with over 5,000 lawyers, a group of at least 2,000 lawyers can establish alternative bar associations. In big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, several bar associations could be established. The amendments would also greatly reduce the representation of the largest bar associations at the national level within the Union of Turkish Bars, the Ankara-based umbrella body with significant financial resources it controls and distributes to provincial bars.

The fact that the vast majority of elected legal profession representatives oppose the move and that the likely impact will be to greatly diminish the authority of leading provincial bars that have been critical of certain government initiatives demonstrates that the aim of the proposed change is to shield the government from justified criticism, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said.

Drastically cutting the number of delegates from large bar associations representing thousands of lawyers to the national Union of Turkish Bar Associations would reduce the influence of the large bar associations in electing the national group’s president and participating meaningfully in other decision-making functions.  

A provincial bar association with fewer than 100 lawyers, such as Ardahan in northeastern Turkey, for example, would be represented by 4 delegates, compared with 3 at present. But a bar association such as Izmir in western Turkey, with over 9,500 lawyers, which sends 35 delegates, would be entitled to only 5. Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir Bar, which represent 55 percent of the lawyers in Turkey, would be entitled to only 7 percent of all delegates within the national union.

The atmosphere of conflict in which the draft law has been introduced, its timing, and the lack of consultation with the bar associations themselves provides credible grounds for great concern and skepticism over the government’s motives, the groups said. Over the past year, Turkey’s presidency and government have made public statements strongly criticizing leading bar associations in response to the bars’ legitimate expression of concerns about Turkey’s rule of law crisis and executive interference in the justice system. The government has reacted strongly against the bars’ scrutiny of its failure to uphold human rights obligations through bar association publication of reports on torture, enforced disappearances, and other rights abuses ignored by the authorities.

For these reasons, the government’s proposed amendments are clearly designed to achieve a political purpose unrelated to an effort to advance or strengthen standards in the legal profession, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said. The government’s move is politically divisive and will contribute to undermining the appearance of independence and impartiality in the justice system.

“The government should immediately withdraw the current proposed amendment and embark on a process of full consultation with bar associations,” said Roisin Pillay, director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at the International Commission of Jurists. “The government’s plan as it stands will only deepen mistrust in Turkey’s justice system as lacking independence by dividing the legal profession along political lines. This could have disastrous long-term consequences for upholding the role and function of lawyers and for fair trial rights.”