Heads of Turkey’s bar associations begin protest march to Ankara

The presidents of 80 bar associations in Turkey on Friday launched a protest march from their respective provinces towards capital Ankara, against government plans to amend laws on how bar associations operate, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.

Bar association presidents will march a symbolic 20 kilometres, after which they will continue the journey by vehicles. The groups are set to arrive in Ankara by Monday.

“Our profession has extremely serious problems. This proposal must be withdrawn,” Istanbul Bar Association President Mehmet Durakoğlu said during a press statement on Friday morning as his group set out from the court house.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) proposal includes changes to the election system in bar associations to improve representation, a move which Turkey’s bar associations maintain pave the way for the formation of city-specific alternative associations that could send delegates to the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB).

Bar associations say they move could effectively allow for alternative bar associations to decrease the voting weight of the largest associations, known for their criticism of the ruling AKP government.

“The proposal for multiple bar associations is a clear restriction to the people’s freedom to defend their rights,” Durakoğlu said.

If the draft bill passes into law, lawyers will be allowed to form second, third, or more bar associations in provinces with more than 5,000 registered lawyers, granted the new association has a minimum of 2,000 members. This means there could be as many as seven bar associations in Istanbul, according to lawyers speaking to Euronews Turkish.

Turkey’s current system is the same as the one in effect throughout Europe, with the partial exception of Belgium due to matters of language, and Britain, which uses a different legal system altogether.

“We as 80 bar associations in this country have a very difficult time coming together. But for the first time, we were able to do it for such an important issue,” Durakoğlu said.

Medical professionals from doctors to nurses to veterinarians marched with Durakoğlu for a while to show support, after which he continued for two hours, accompanied by a small group of lawyers who were allowed to do so. Durakoğlu continued in a car after exiting Istanbul city limits.

President of northwestern Yalova province’s bar association, Fedayi Doğruyol, started the march under heavy rain, Cumhuriyet said.

“We are starting to utilise democratic methods to defend our rights,” the President of southern Mersin province’s bar association, Bilgin Yeşilboğaz, said as he started his march from the court house.

Izmir Bar Association President Özhan Yücel called the government plan a “project of treason, a project to divide, pulverise and take over,” as he started his march from the western coastal province’s court house, accompanied by representatives from civil society organisations and workers’ unions.

 “We do not accept this project of surrender,” Yücel said.

Turkey’s lawyers fear that the proposal would drastically reduce the power of oversight bar associations have, and the obligation to keep a certain number of members would lead to problems.

Lawyer Mehmet Köksal told Euronews Turkish that bar associations may be reluctant to penalise members who violate professional ethics if such actions would push them below the minimum member threshold. With reduced material resources, professional training bar associations offer will suffer as well, he added.

Istanbul Bar Association Vice President Naran Moroğlu said legal support for women and children subjected to violence would falter under a multiple bar system.

“Lawyers providing support for victims of violence are required to have completed training offered by bar associations,” Moroğlu said. “How will these institutional trainings be implemented under multiple associations? Would it be possible to compensate for the rights violations citizens will face?”

Meanwhile, TBB President Metin Feyzioğlu questioned the motivations behind the march.

“Is this a march to resolve issues within the judiciary, or for something else?” Feyzioğlu asked in a televised interview on Saturday morning, adding, “For one thing, they are not 80 presidents marching. There is maybe 30 of them.”

Feyzioğlu said there are many issues with Turkey’s judiciary, but “solving that takes time.”

“I am the president of an organisation tasked to defend the interests of the state within the framework of the law,” Feyzioğlu said.

President of the southern Antalya province’s bar association, Polat Balkan, protested Feyzioğlu’s comments.

“(Feyzioğlu) has pointed to me and other bar association presidents as targets once again,” Balkan said. “If anything happens to us, (Feyzioğlu) is responsible!”

“You will go down in history as the TBB President who put a target on the backs of bar association presidents,” Gökhan Bozkurt, president of western Aydın province’s bar association, said in another response to Feyzioğlu.