Committee Reports

Statement of the New York City Bar Association Marking Lawyers’ Day in Turkey

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The New York City Bar Association has long followed with mounting concern the situation of the lawyers, prosecutors, and judges of Turkey.[1] Marking April 5 as Lawyers’ Day in Turkey, the New York City Bar joins the international community in paying tribute to Turkish lawyers and condemning the ongoing grave challenges to the independence, and the safety and security, of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges throughout the country.[2] 

I. Recent Events Targeting Turkish Lawyers

For years Turkey has been one of the riskiest countries in the world for lawyers and other human rights defenders. The legal profession, and the justice system generally, have been key targets for an oppressive regime. As evidenced by numerous events over the last few months alone, the attacks on Turkey’s lawyers are continuing unabated. 

In late February, for example lawyer and human rights defender Şüheda Ronahi Çiftçi was imprisoned, accused of being a member of “a terrorist organization” based on her professional and human rights activities.[3] Renowned lawyer Feyza Altun was similarly arrested on charges of “inciting people to hatred and hostility.”[4] Mere days before, lawyers Didem Baydar Ünsal, Berrak Çağlar, Seda Şaraldı and Betül Vangölü Kozağaçlı – all members of the Progressive Lawyers Association (Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği, or “ÇHD”) – were arrested as well.[5] 

In the most high profile case, which involves renowned human rights lawyer and elected Member of Parliament Can Atalay, Turkey is confronted with a Constitutional crisis of grave proportions. In that case, now at an impasse, Turkey’s Constitutional Court (the country’s highest court) is pitted against the Turkish Supreme Court and Turkey’s Parliament, both of which are openly defying the Constitutional Court, and, indeed, the rule of law itself. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the Constitutional Court’s order for his release, Atalay continues to languish in prison.[6]  

Events surrounding the recent elections in Turkey[7] have been another focal point for the regime’s attacks on lawyers. On April 2, police battered members of a group of 200 lawyers who had gathered at Istanbul’s Cağlayan Courthouse (the main courthouse), to read a statement protesting election irregularities in the province of Van. At least 13 of the lawyers were arrested.[8] 

Bar associations have not gone unscathed. As one very recent example, Diyarbakır prosecutors have just launched an investigation into 11 Diyarbakır Bar Association leaders on accusations of “denigrating the Turkish nation and state.” The prosecutors’ focus is a 2021 bar association statement commemorating the victims of the Armenian genocide.[9] And, on April 4, Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Yılmaz Tunç, accused Turkish bar associations of operating as a de facto opposition party – “even beyond an opposition party” – for “involving in different ideological activities.”[10] Bar associations have incurred the ire of Turkish authorities for years.  

II. Special Protections for Lawyers Under International Law

International law recognizes the unique role that lawyers play in any society. Because lawyers serve as the guardians of justice for all, international law accords lawyers special protections.[11] For example, the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that clients’ positions and causes are not to be attributed to their counsel.[12] In other words, as an advocate, a lawyer is obligated to make the best case possible for a client. But no matter who the client is and no matter what the client’s position or cause may be, that position or cause is not attributable to the lawyer personally. 

The U.N. Basic Principles on Lawyers further provide that governments are to “ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.”[13] Further, “[w]here the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions,” the U.N. Basic Principles on Lawyers state that the lawyers “shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.”[14]  

In addition, the U.N. Basic Principles on Lawyers underscore that lawyers are entitled to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. In particular, they have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice, and the promotion and protection of human rights.[15] 

Like all lawyers around the world, the lawyers of Turkey are entitled to all of these protections. 

III. Resolution and Call to Action

As the world marks Lawyers’ Day in Turkey, the New York City Bar Association renews its call on President Erdogan and the government of Turkey to comply with the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, as well as all other relevant provisions of international law. The New York City Bar is honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the courageous, beleaguered lawyers of that country. They shine as beacons for us all.