The Law Society coordinates an international coalition of legal organisations for a letter to Turkish authorities

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We are very concerned about the Ankara Prosecutor’s office launching a criminal investigation against the Ankara Bar Association on the grounds of “openly disrespect[ing] the religious belief of a group” (article 126(3) of the Penal Code of Turkey). This investigation was opened after the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint – on 27 April 2020 - against the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Mr. Ali Erbaş. The latter, in a sermon on 24 April 2020, referred to COVID-19 generally and, referencing HIV, suggested that members of the LGBT community spread disease, urging people to “join the fight to protect people from such evil”.

 In its complaint, the Ankara Bar Association argued that Mr, Erbaş’ remarks appear to constitute public provocation of hatred and hostility, an offence established in article 216(2) of the Turkish Penal Code. It has been reported that the President of Turkey, as well as the Minister of Justice, condemned the Ankara Bar Association for its criticism of Mr. Erbaş’ remarks. We also understand that the Diyarbakir Chief Prosecutor’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into the Diyarbakir Bar Association on the same grounds, after that Bar Association also spoke out against the remarks made by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate.

We believe that the instigation of these criminal investigations into both Bar Associations, as well as the endorsement thereof by at least one Government Minister – the Minister in charge of the justice system, represent a threat to the independence of the legal profession in Turkey. Bar Associations should be able to function as independent professional bodies, representing their members, without any interference from the executive or legislative branches of government. We also believe that the criminal investigations seem to suggest that prosecutorial independence may have been compromised in Turkey, which undermines the justice system.

The criminal investigations launched against these Bar Associations have the potential to erode the separation of powers, as well as the respect for the rights of members of the LGBT community, in what constitutionally is a secular and democratic republic. Bar Associations not only promote the interests of their members and foster professional solidarity with colleagues in other jurisdictions, but it is also their role to speak out against any developments in their jurisdiction that affect the legal profession or human rights and the rule of law more generally. In this sense, the Ankara Bar Association and the Diyarbakir Bar Association – when filing their complaints - have acted in accordance with the purposes for which they were established and have performed their functions in an appropriate manner as any of our respective organisations would do in our own jurisdictions.

Furthermore, we believe that these criminal investigations form part of a broader effort to undermine the independence of Bar Associations, and the legal profession more widely, in Turkey. It has been reported that, after the Ankara Bar Association and Diyarbakir Bar Association filed their respective complaints, the Ministry of Justice and the President’s office proposed to amend the legal framework concerning lawyers and change the election processes of Bar Associations. It is apparently also proposed to establish alternative professional representative bodies. We believe that none of these proposed amendments, directly affecting the legal profession, have been adequately consulted with members of the legal profession or Bar Associations. These measures and proposals, jointly and individually, represent an impermissible interference with the independence of the legal profession that has no place in a democratic society.

Read our joint letter in full below.