L4L observes second hearing in case Ankara Bar Association
On 9 March 2022, representatives of Lawyers for Lawyers observed the second hearing in the trial against the Executive Board Members of the Ankara Bar Association (ABA). The Executive Board Members are charged with publicly insulting a public official, after commenting on a statement of the Head of Religious Affairs.
On 24 April 2020, the head of Turkey’s religious Affairs Directorate held a speech during his Friday sermon at the Ankara Hacı Bayram-i Veli Mosque titled “Ramadan Patience and Will Training“. In his speech he 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 reaction to that statement, the ABA issued a statement: “We watched with surprise and caution the speech of Ali Erbaş, Head of Religious Affairs, who insulted a part of humanity with hatred and targeted them publicly […] We respectfully proclaim to all the public that we condemn with great surprise and caution the person mentioned and the mentality that agrees with him.”
Hereafter, the Ankara Prosecutor’s office launched a criminal investigation against 10 Executive Board Members and 1 lawyer of the ABA.on suspicion of violating article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code (publicly insulting a public official for expressing religious beliefs, thoughts and opinions), facing a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment or a judicial fine.
The hearing of 9 March 2022
The second hearing in the case took place on 9 March 2022. Several presidents of bar associations from all over Turkey as well as many lawyers were present at the hearing to support their colleagues.
During the first hearing in the case on 15 December 2021, only 9 of the 11 defendants were present to present their defense. During the second hearing, the two other defendants and their lawyers gave their defense. They argued that the speech of the Head of Religious Affairs, which was broadcasted in all mosques in Turkey, was discriminatory since a group of people was stigmatized based on their sexual orientation. The ABA sees it as their public duty to protect human rights based on the Advocates Act of Turkey and in the statement that was released, there were no elements of a crime. The defendants and their lawyers pleaded for acquittal.
At the hearing, there were also two parties who requested to be allowed as third-party interveners to the case. One of the lawyers was present on behalf of the Head of Religious Affairs. He argued that the Head of Religious Affairs in his statement, was just quoting the Quran and discussing religious requirements. He deplored the fact that the ABA had not reached out to the Head of Religious Affairs if they had questions about his speech. According to him, the defendants should be convicted and punished. The second lawyer was present on behalf of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. He stated that the Directorate was attacked through the statement of the ABA and that the case was being politicized. This lawyer making a statement led to many counter arguments of the defendants and their lawyers, who argued that his statement should be discarded since the court had not even decided yet that the Directorate would be allowed as a third-party intervener, since the Directorate, not being a person, cannot be insulted or suffer damages. Eventually, the judge decided that only the Head of Religious Affairs was allowed as a third-party intervener in the case.
All defendants stated during the hearing that they reject the option laid down in art. 231 of the Criminal Procedural Code of Turkey, which would mean they would accept a suspended sentence and waive their right to appeal. They all requested to be acquitted.
The case is postponed to 22 June 2022. At this hearing the prosecutor will present his demands. Lawyers for Lawyers will continue to monitoring this case.
Pressure on Bar Associations in Turkey
The criminal prosecution of the ABA forms part of a broader effort to undermine the independence of Bar Associations, and the legal profession more widely, in Turkey. Besides criminal investigations launched into Bar Associations, in 2020 the Attorneyship Law No.1136 was amended, allowing for the creation of multiple associations in one province. It has been reported that these amendments aim at weakening “the existing bar associations in, for example, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Diyarbakir – many of which are outspoken critics of the Turkish government regarding the rule of law and human rights and actively support the fight against torture”. This is one of the first cases against Bar Associations to go to trial, but other cases are under investigation.
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