ANKARA: Fifty bar associations throughout Turkey have joined forces to express their concerns over proposed changes to rules governing elections to their boards which they claim are undemocratic.
Turkey’s bar associations are among the few remaining dissident voices in Turkey holding out against governmental pressure on the country’s judiciary.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently hinted at a long-debated change to the election processes for the bar associations and is currently working on a draft bill that would significantly decrease their many authorities.
The bill aims to change the election system of the bars’ administrations via proportional representation and open the way to the establishment of alternative associations in each city that could send delegates to the Union of Turkish Bar Associations.
In this way, the alternative bar associations would decrease the voting weight of the largest associations who have been openly critical of the ruling government’s legal wrongdoings.
For some time, Turkey’s biggest bar associations, especially those in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, have been highlighting deficiencies in the rule of law in Turkey.
Recently, 46 bar associations issued a joint declaration criticizing the government’s amnesty law which allowed for the release of mafia bosses and child abusers from prison, while keeping dissident journalists locked up.
Bar associations have also slammed health and hygiene conditions in Turkish jails and called for the release of prisoners as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
In a recent statement, Istanbul Bar Association chairman, Mehmet Durakoglu, said that the government had “achieved what it couldn’t do by political means” at the ballot box by using the judiciary as a tool against dissidents.
A total of 51 bar associations across the country recently boycotted a judges’ ceremony at the presidential palace, claiming the choice of venue showed once again the lack of separation of powers in the country.
Experts considered the move was an attempt to restrict the bar associations’ key role in scrutinizing government and supporting rule of law for each citizen.
Erdal Dogan, a lawyer specializing in human rights, said the proposed changes could hit lawyers dependent on the Justice Ministry and destroy the judiciary’s independence.
Currently, there is one bar association in each province of Turkey. But, according to Dogan, the establishment of alternative ones could result in the creation of partisan and pro-government establishments.
“Such an amendment on the law of the bar associations would ultimately put the professional rights and authorities of the lawyers under the control of the executive branch,” he told Arab News.
According to Amnesty International’s 2019 Report on Turkey, the judiciary was still used as a tool of pressure over people.
“The reforms failed to address the structural flaws in a judiciary under extreme political pressure or to end unfair and politically motivated prosecutions and convictions,” the report said.
Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at US NGO Freedom House, said: "Changes to the bar associations' methods of election would do very serious damage to the independence of the legal profession in Turkey. Regional bar associations in Turkey play a critical role in defending the rights of minorities and in ensuring the protection of the law extends to all members of society."
Schenkkan added: "The fact that changes are currently being discussed explicitly because the government disagrees with some bar associations' stance on behalf
of vulnerable minorities underscores why this would be such a dangerous step for the legal profession and civil society as a whole."