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Turkey: Police break up protest by lawyers against bar association legislation

Bar associations says new proposal is aimed at undermining longstanding government critics
Lawyers hold placards reading: 'Everyone Needs Defence. Defence is a right', at Istanbul's courthouse on 30 June (AFP)

Police used shields and pepper spray to disperse a protest by lawyers against new legislation to break up Turkey's influential bar associations, after Ankara's governor imposed a 15-day ban on demonstrations in the city.

A number of organisations - including the Istanbul Bar Association, Izmir Bar Association and Ankara Bar Association - had planned a "Great Defence Rally" in the Turkish capital on Friday, in a show of opposition to changes to the Attorneys Act.

However, the Ankara governor's office on Thursday said that "all demonstrations and events" in the city would be banned for 15 days, nominally because of an increase in coronavirus cases.

A crowd of lawyers gathered outside the Ankara courthouse on Friday afternoon to demonstrate, defying the protest ban.

"You want to sew buttons to our robes by splitting bar associations. You want everyone to be silent," said Ankara Bar Association chair Erinc Sagkan.

"You say, 'The bars went too far.' As long as you continue to make the judiciary dependent, we'll continue to 'go too far'."

Shortly after Sagkan's comments, the group attempted to march, but was blocked and then attacked by police.

Clampdown on critics

According to the new proposals, sponsored in parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the allied far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the current rules, which dictate only one bar association is allowed per province in Turkey, would be changed to allow the creation of multiple associations.

Figures from the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB) show 17,598 lawyers registered with the Ankara Bar Association, 46,052 lawyers with the Istanbul Bar Association, and 9,612 lawyers with the Izmir Bar Association.

AKP lawmakers have argued that the new legislation, which will allow an association with a minimum of 2,000 lawyers to be established if there are over 5,000 lawyers in a city, is necessary because of the unwieldy number of lawyers in Turkey.

Members of the established associations, however, have argued that the legislation is designed to encourage the breaking up of the current associations, which have for years been powerful critical voices against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.

The heads of a number of associations camped outside the Turkish parliament overnight on Thursday evening after they were prevented from entering parliament, because the Justice Committee said that it would only allow three representatives among the lawyers.

TBB chair Metin Feyzioglu said the committee claimed there was not enough space in the debate chamber because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Translation: "The Attorneys' Act is being discussed inside. Bar chairs can't go in. Let's not show this photograph to anyone. I am embarrassed."

The new bar association legislation comes in the wake of a widely reported controversy around anti-LGBT comments made by the head of the Turkey Directorate of Religious Affairs.

In April, the Ankara Bar Association made a criminal complaint against Ali Erbas after the official declared in one of his sermons that homosexuality "brings illnesses and corrupts generations".

The organisation said the cleric's comments "came from ages ago", while the Izmir Bar Association also weighed in, saying it was concerned the statement could encourage new hate crimes.

In response, prosecutors opened probes into the bar associations.