It has never been as dangerous to be a human rights lawyer in Turkey as it is now.
So says Güray Dağ, a member of the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD): the 2,500 Turkish lawyers who routinely take on the country’s highest-profile cases against police brutality, hate crimes, civil rights violations and baseless arrests.
Twelve of their members, including the head of the association, the head of its Istanbul branch, and several other ÇHD executives, were arrested on Jan. 18 in an anti-terror operation that brought 85 people into custody .
The police detained leftists of all stripes — students, teachers, community activists, musicians, journalists, and lawyers — on charges of belonging to the Revolutionary Peoples’ Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a militant Marxist group aiming to overthrow the Turkish government. Thirty of the detained, including Dağ and two other ÇHD lawyers, were released following interrogations, but the others expect to wait at least six months in custody for their first hearing.
Police and prosecutors have touted the operation as one of Turkey’s strongest blows at the DHKP-C’s secret collaborators yet. But to local critics and international human rights organizations, the case is a new low in the Turkish government’s arbitrary wielding of anti-terror laws against political dissidents.
Turkey already has the dubious honor of world’s top jailer of journalists, and half of the 8,000 Turks arrested on terror charges in 2011 have still not received a verdict, according to the Turkish Justice Ministry. Until now, however, prosecutors had never taken so many prominent human rights lawyers into custody at once.
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Thousands of protesters marched down Istanbul’s main pedestrian drag on Jan. 22, carrying posters and torches in a show of solidarity for the lawyers arrested in the operation. The next day, the ÇHD's leading members were moved to an F-type maximum security prison outside Istanbul — a type of prison long criticized by human rights organizations for the brutal conditions prisoners face inside.
“It’s one thing to investigate people for alleged links to terrorist groups, but another thing to place them in pretrial detention where they’ll be for many months,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch. “There has to be very serious evidence against lawyers to justify placing them in pretrial detention.”
Dağ and another released member of the ÇHD, Gülvin Aydın, suggest that the Jan. 18 operation violated Turkey’s Code of Criminal Procedure, and that the lawyers’ arrests were based on flimsy evidence.
When police arrested Aydın outside her house at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, she says she noticed that the officers’ search and arrest warrant had only been signed by one judge, whereas three are required to make it a “court decision”, which Article 130 of Turkey’s Code of Criminal Procedure demands for the search of attorneys’ homes or offices. The same code requires that a prosecutor be present at the search, but Aydın was forced to wait in her car without her phone for nearly six hours before the prosecutor arrived.
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Amnesty International received information that some police had conducted their searches of lawyers’ homes and offices without any prosecutor present. Ahsen Coşar, head of Turkey’s bar association, pointed out that many search warrants lacked the backing of a court decision, and were therefore illegal.
Several arrested lawyers reported having blood and DNA samples taken from them by force, while being sworn at and stepped on, according to Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper. A lawyer for five journalists who were arrested during the operation told the Committee to Protect Journalists that his clients were “badly beaten” in custody.
During preliminary interrogations, Dağ and Aydın say, their prosecutors presented them with false allegations from witnesses, brought up DHKP-C documents used in a 2012 case against some ÇHD members in which all were acquitted, and asked them about entirely legal press releases and public demonstrations in which they had participated.
“The fact that I advise my clients to use their right to silence before they know the charges against them — even that was shown as evidence of my guilt,” says Dağ. “It is nonsense to present this to a lawyer as a criminal charge.”
Dağ says he was also accused of only taking on cases related to the DHKP-C. But in the six years that he has been a director at the ÇHD, he says, he has worked on hundreds of cases, only a handful of which were for clients accused of DHKP-C involvement.
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“We are not connected to any organization. We have legally represented all the dissident and alternative communities in Turkey,” he adds. “But they only looked at the cases we had done regarding this group. They thought there was an ideological closeness.”
Most of those detained on Jan. 18 do not support the DHKP-C in any demonstrable way, suspects David Romano, associate professor of Political Science at Missouri State University.
Instead, according to Romano, their cases are based on a kernel of truth — the real threat that the DHKP-C poses to Turkey — which is then “snowballed into an operation, an excuse to throw a wide net and wrap up all the dissidents who are currently causing them headaches. This is an ongoing pattern in the government of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan,” he says.
Police sources have completely rejected any kind of government involvement in the Jan. 18 operation, however. “Nowadays, people just accuse the prosecutors of being the government’s righthand, but I can tell you: these prosecutors are free from any government pressure. They act on their own will,” says Süleyman Özeren, director of the International Center for Terrorism and Transnational Crime at the Police Academy in Ankara.
Weakened by operations over the past several years, Özeren says, the DHKP-C has been trying to re-assert its strength in recent months by attacking police and other symbols of the Turkish state. Although they are based abroad, he adds, the DHKP-C is a very sophisticated, dynamic organization, and certainly has the “potential” to work secretly with subversives in Turkey. On the question of the lawyers’ guilt, Özeren says, “Only the case will tell.”
To Dağ and Aydın, however, the case is an excuse to intimidate the ÇHD and hinder its members in their work. Dağ says the group is being targeted for its public stance against certain government policies and its activities combating police brutality — such as the “Help! Police” legal assistance hotline for victims of police brutality, which the ÇHD opened last year.
While thousands have already been arrested under the KCK case, only a few hundred have been seized on suspicion of DHKP-C membership in recent years, according to Aydın. But, she says, the numbers are increasing each year. Nobody thinks the Jan. 18 detainees will be the last ones to face DHKP-C charges.
With Turkey’s foremost human rights lawyers now in prison indefinitely, points out Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner, “The question to ask is: who will be left to defend the victims of alleged human rights violations?”