Lawyers on Trial in Turkey: Implications for Establishing Peace and Justice
Report of the public meeting held in Parliament by David Morgan, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign
4 March 2013
In Turkey today lawyers are being locked up simply for doing their job of representing their clients. The abuse of legality has gone so far that lawyers seeking to represent imprisoned lawyers are themselves being prosecuted. At present more than 50 lawyers in Turkey are in jail, of whom the majority are former members of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s legal team.
These and other deeply worrying facts were discussed at a briefing meeting, hosted by Lord Kennedy and chaired by solicitor advocate Ali Has, which was held in the Wilson Room, Portcullis House, Westminster, on 28 February.
The meeting was organised by Peace in Kurdistan supported by Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH) and CAMPACC and it was addressed by a distinguished panel of human rights lawyers including Michael Mansfield QC, Professor Bill Bowring and Margaret Owen OBE.
The speakers highlighted numerous abuses in the Turkish legal system and discussed the wider political implications, including similarities between what was taking place inside Turkey and in many other cases throughout the world where people were struggling for legitimate democratic rights.
In the case of the Kurdish lawyers, the meeting was informed that the evidence used against them had been obtained through the recording of what should have been confidential meetings with Ocalan during their prison visits to Imrali Island. The lawyers now stand accused of acting as go-betweens for Ocalan and the wider Kurdish movement, including the guerrillas.
Speakers stressed that it was not only lawyers that were facing arrest. Since the Turkish authorities launched the KCK operations over 8,000 people from various social stratas, including politicians, academics, writers, journalists and trade unionists, had been arrested as Turkey attempts to silence the Kurdish people and weaken their political organisations. The clampdown had been launched in the wake of the electoral gains of the main pro-Kurdish political party, the BDP, stated solicitor Ali Has, who chaired the meeting.
Sadly, Turkey was far from alone in this practise, the meeting heard; in fact, there are cases around the world of lawyers targeted for persecution wherever popular movements exist which threaten to disrupt the interests of governments and their global allies among which are multinational corporations, many British owned.
Michael Mansfield, who is President of the Haldane Society, put the arrest of lawyers in the wider context of a deep global crisis which he described as an economic, environmental and political ‘’meltdown’’ with serious implications for the future of human rights.
As the crisis deepened, we were witnessing a desperate scramble for territory, energy resources and power among the world’s major states acting in concert with multinational corporations. Anyone who stood in the way of these powerful interests were being criminalised and because those threatened were not simply lawyers, Mansfield said he preferred to describe them as ‘’human rights defenders’’.
The persecuted included the miners in South Africa who were shot for standing up for their rights as well as indigenous peoples around the world who were confronting the impact of development policies on their lands such as the Kurds who faced criminalisation under anti-terrorism laws.
Mr Mansfield described similar cases in which he had been involved over the years such as the struggle of the people of the Niger Delta in the 1990s to resist oil exploration which was destroying their environment.
People in Europe were not exempt from the criminalisation for the simple fact that Europe was right at the heart of it, he said. Multinationals carrying out development projects in Africa represented European interests along with those of China and the US.
He argued that the need to defend human rights defenders remained an urgent priority of groups like the Haldane Society and called for the setting up an instant response unit of lawyers in order to respond to cases as they emerge. This could organise protest actions and hold states to account when they abused their power.
Mr Mansfield warned that lawyers in the UK were not free from attack and cited the cases of lawyers in Northern Ireland who had been murdered by assassins thought to be linked to security forces.
Bill Bowring described the work of the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers which was established in 1946 and had a record of support for national liberation movements.
Professor Bowring looked at the threats to lawyers in Turkey over many decades and how they had courageously sought to resist criminalisation including going on hunger strike against the notorious F-Type prisons. The appalling conditions of detention in Turkish prisons had later been probed in a Haldane Society report, he said.
The trial of the 46 lawyers which had been adjourned until 28 March had inspired a UK delegation which had produced a witness report and details of the trial had been circulated all over the world. It was vitally important to get the message to the media, he said, when human rights defenders were continuing to be arrested in Turkey, as in the case of the 85 people who were detained on 18 January.
Finally, Margaret Owen, who had acted as a witness at previous trials in Turkey, gave a vivid description of the bizarre situation within Turkish courts where the judge sat alongside the prosecuting counsel and seemingly cared little about conveying an impression of impartiality.
Ms Owen condemned the routine refusal to grant bail to lawyers facing prosecution as an example of the injustice of the Turkish legal system which also prevented Kurdish defendants from speaking in the Kurdish language and consistently breached confidentiality by listening in on conversations between lawyers and clients.
She situated the trials within the context of Turkey’s ongoing criminalisation of the Kurds with the introduction of more draconian anti-terrorism laws at an international level post-9/11. Human rights breaches in Turkey were rarely raised by European politicians or in the media despite Ankara’s bid to join the European Union.
She warned that Turkey was killing its own people and engaging in a cultural genocide against the Kurds and its atrocious record needed to be highlighted more in the international arena.
For this reason, Margaret Owen indicated her intention to join the forthcoming delegation to witness the resumption of the lawyers’ trial when it opens on 28 March.
The public meeting urged support for the delegation as an urgent priority and saw it as an important means of raising the continuing abuses by the Turkish authorities of fundamental civil and human rights of the Kurdish people. It also made a call for support for the initiative to set up an Alliance to Defend Human Rights Defenders in Turkey.
For more information contact
Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question
Contacts: Estella Schmid and Melanie Sirinathsingh
Email: [email protected] Tel 02 7586 5892
Patrons: Lord Avebury, Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jill Evans MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Elfyn Llwyd MP, Conor Murphy MP, John Austin, Bruce Kent, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, John Berger, Edward Albee, Margaret Owen OBE, Prof Mary Davis, Mark Thomas
European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH) http://www.eldh.eu/
Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) www.campacc.org.uk