A scandal that broke out after the Ankara Bar Association refused to publish a report prepared by the bar’s Human Rights Center on allegations of torture of detainees in the custody of the Ankara police has been escalating as lawyers resign in protest of the bar’s decision.
The resignation of Rıza Türmen, Turkey’s former European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judge and head of the bar’s Human Rights Center, has been a major blow to the association’s management, which has not responded to multiple calls by lawyers and human rights organizations to publish the report. Known for its opposition to Turkey’s Islamist, authoritarian government, the bar’s administration, controlled by secular and nationalist lawyers, is accused of consciously turning a blind eye to violations of the human rights of Kurds and Gülenists for ideological reasons.
On January 17, human rights activists claimed on social media that dozens of people affiliated with the Gülen movement, a group critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were detained by the counterterrorism unit of the Ankara Police Department and that they were subjected to torture during their interrogation in the absence of their lawyers.
Relatives of the people who were allegedly tortured applied to the Ankara Bar Association and requested legal assistance in pursuing the allegations. As a result, members of the Human Rights Center operating under the bar association went to the police department and interviewed the victims in custody for two days and drafted a report that included the allegations of torture.
While human rights organizations were waiting for the report in order to publicize the allegations of torture around the world by citing the bar association, in a statement dated January 26 the Ankara Bar Association announced that a criminal complaint would be filed regarding allegations of torture without going into detail about the content of the report.
According to information confirmed by Nordic Monitor, Ankara Bar Association President Kemal Koranel wanted to censor several victim statements of being stripped naked and torture with a foreign object. The bar association decided not to publish the report upon the lawyers’ refusal to remove the statements that management was attempting to censor.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle Turkish service, Koranel denied the allegations of censorship. “We have done our part in terms of human rights and freedoms. We have filed a criminal complaint with the prosecutor’s office. To date, the Human Rights Center has prepared 13 similar reports. Only one of them has been published. We don’t have a procedure for publishing every report,” he said.
Since the crisis involving publication of the report was not resolved, Ankara Bar Association Human Rights Center President Türmen, Vice Presidents Gizay Dulkadir and Sercan Aran, Secretary-General Rumeysa Budak and center members Deniz Can Aydın and Nadire Nurdoğan tendered their resignations.
Dulkadir announced her resignation in a tweet that said, “I have resigned from my position as vice president of the Human Rights Center, believing it is not possible to fight for human rights with the Ankara Bar Association management at the stage we have reached.”
Aran claimed that no legal justification was provided by the bar to them, saying: “We wanted our report to be shared with the public because we see exposure as an important method in fighting torture and ill-treatment, and we care about the public pressure that will ensue. That’s why we asked for the report to be published. However, this request was denied.”
Secretary-General of the Human Rights Center Budak said she resigned after she encountered a system that cannot defend even the most basic principles regarding human rights, referring to the attitude of the bar association.
According to information obtained by Nordic Monitor, the bar association has also blocked a statement that jailed Kurdish lawmaker Aysel Tuğluk still not been released despite suffering from dementia. In addition, a bulletin with summaries of lawyers’ evaluations of ECtHR cases has been waiting to be published for more than a month. Furthermore, a statement about a group known as the Saturday Mothers, who protest for their relatives who were kidnapped by the state, was also censored by the bar association.
In 2019 the Ankara Police Department was again in the hot seat over allegations of the torture of diplomats and civil servants dismissed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, at that time, the Ankara Bar Association quickly prepared an extensive report on the allegations and filed a criminal complaint, bringing the allegations to public notice.
It is clear that there was a change of policy in the bar association administration with the election of Koranel as president on December 8, 2021. Lawyers claim that Koranel’s ideological approach, which is close to that of nationalist and strictly pro-secular groups, will deepen the crisis at the Ankara Bar Association, which was previously known for its zero-tolerance policy regarding human rights violations.
Bar associations face government pressure
Bar associations across Turkey were careful not to confront the Erdoğan government over increased human rights violations that took place during a witch-hunt launched following a controversial coup attempt in 2016. Immediately after the abortive putsch, hundreds of lawyers were detained and arrested for alleged membership in the Gülen movement.
A report by The Arrested Lawyers Initiative based in Brussels titled The Crackdown reveals that more than 1,600 lawyers have been arrested and prosecuted, while 615 have been remanded to pretrial detention since 2016. Four hundred seventy-four lawyers were ultimately sentenced to a total of 2,966 years in prison on conviction of membership in an armed terrorist organization or of spreading terrorist propaganda.
The ultra-secular Metin Feyzioğlu, former chairman of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, was criticized by his colleagues for not resisting political pressure on lawyers. Although he was overwhelmingly supported by the government in the last union elections on December 5, 2021, the delegates elected Erinç Sağkan, former president of the Ankara Bar Association, as the new head of the union.
Ümit Kocasakal, the ex-president of the Istanbul Bar, one of the largest bar associations in the world, proudly admitted that the İstanbul bar did not appoint lawyers to represent members of the Gülen movement despite the fact that it was required by law.