Paris-Geneva, July 21, 2023 – Over 25 lawyers, all of them members of Lawyers for Freedom Association (Özgürlük için Hukukçular Derneği – ÖHD), were judicially harassed in Turkey over the past two months due to their professional activities. The Observatory (FIDH-OMCT) denounces this clear attempt to prevent lawyers from performing their duties and defending human rights and calls on the authorities to guarantee their right to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.
In the early hours of April 25, 2023, as part of an operation involving 3500 police officers directed by the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, a total of 191 people, including lawyers, artists and journalists, were detained across 21 cities in Turkey, the majority of them Kurdish cities. On the same day, the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu published a video production on his Twitter account showing footages of police operations the dates of which are unknown, alongside a caption stating that those detained were "financing the terrorist organisation, acting as lawyers on behalf of the terrorist organisation and supplying members to the organisation".
As part of the operation, the prosecution issued detention orders against a total of 25 lawyers, all members of the ÖHD, an association which provides legal support to victims of human rights violations. The lawyers’ houses and offices, as well as the headquarters of ÖHD, were searched by the police. During the searches, procedural safeguards were violated. Particularly, the search orders did not contain any information about the alleged charges, and neither a bar association representative nor the prosecutor were present during the searches of the lawyers' homes, as required under domestic law. In addition, a search was conducted in the ÖHD Headquarters and the Diyarbakır Branch offices, even though the organisation is not under investigation and its premises are not used as a lawyers' office. Some documents related to applications made by torture survivors for legal support were confiscated. Another lawyer’s computer and digital equipment used for his professional activities and containing case files of his clients, in addition to legal documents, were confiscated, despite objections by the lawyer and other lawyers present during the search, who were also removed from the office by the prosecutor. The documents were examined by the police and later returned to the lawyer on May 6, 2023.
The 17 lawyers detained following the raids were barred from meeting with their own lawyers for 24 hours, as per the Diyarbakır 3 Peace Criminal Judgeship's decision. Those detained and their lawyers were also prevented from reviewing the case file due to a confidentiality order on the investigation decided by the same Judgeship. Lawyers' objections to both decisions were denied without any reason, leaving those detained not knowing what they were being charged with.
The lawyers of the detainees were only able to meet with their clients on April 26, 2023. The detained lawyers were charged with “membership to an armed organisation” under Article 314/2 of the Turkish Penal Code and were interrogated over several days by the law enforcement and the prosecution. They were asked if they represent clients "under the orders of the terrorist organisation" and whether "ÖHD operates as a shadow bar association".
On April 27, 2023, a total of 48 people were arrested, including four ÖHD members, Özüm Vurgun, Burhan Arta, Serhat Hezer and Şerzan Yelboğa. The other detained lawyers were released under judicial control. On May 25, 2023, the four arrested lawyers were also released under judicial control measures.
On May 21, 2023, Süleyman Soylu stated that "Whenever PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]'s lawyers are locked up, then there will be no PKK in Turkey. They are the target. It’s as clear as day" and that "PKK is poisoning Turkey via lawyers." The Diyarbakır Bar Association condemned Mr Soylu's comments criminalising and targeting the legal profession, and underlined that this declaration constitutes a threat of a new investigation.
On June 9, 2023, ÖHD members Gülhan Kaya and Mustafa Taylan Savran were detained. Savran was released after two days of questioning whereas Kaya was arrested on June 12, 2023, under charges of “membership to an armed organisation”. The Peace Criminal Judgeship referred to Kaya’s meetings with her clients as part of her professional duties in the arrest order. Other ÖHD members are also being investigated: Kader Tonç was released after providing a statement to the prosecution whereas there are detention orders against Sezin Uçar and Özlem Gümüştaş, both lawyers of the Law Office for the Oppressed (Ezilenlerin Hukuk Bürosu – EHB).
The Observatory underlines that these mass detentions and the Minister of Interior’s declarations, which mainly target human rights defenders and the legal profession, took place weeks before the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey, in what seems to be an attempt to silence any dissenting voices in the country and to influence the outcome of the elections. The most recent detentions and arrest, which followed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election as president and a parliamentary majority of the alliance his party is leading, show a clear willingness to perpetuate this repressive environment for lawyers in the country.
The Observatory strongly denounces the abusive use of "anti-terrorism" legislations to target human rights defenders and lawyers, and to instrumentalise and denigrate their work, having a detrimental effect on civic space, especially during and after a critical election period.
The Observatory calls on the authorities in Turkey to immediately release Gülhan Kaya and put an end to the systematic criminalisation and harassment of human rights defenders in the country, including members of the ÖHD and EHB, and to ensure that they are able to operate in a favourable environment that enables them to carry out their legitimate activities in all circumstances, without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.
The Observatory further urges Turkey to abide by its obligations under international law, and to respect internationally recognised human rights standards, in particular the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Principle 16 states that lawyers should be able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognised professional duties, standards and ethics.