Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
One day in late 1994, human rights lawyer Sedat Aslantas argued in Turkish state security court on behalf of a client charged with engaging in terrorist activity. The following day, Aslantas himself was arrested on similar charges and thrown behind bars — into the same cell of Ankara Central Prison as his client. “I’m sad for you,” the client told Aslantas. “Is there something I can do?” Aslantas, relaxing in his Ankara office in a stylish dark-blue shirt, now chuckles as he recalls the role reversal. He politely thanked the client and mused that, short of changing the government’s position on civil liberties, there was precious little that anyone could do for Kurdish human rights lawyers. “The attitude of the government,” says Aslantas, “is that if a lawyer defends a political client, the lawyer is as bad as his client.” Kurdish human rights lawyers certainly have not lacked for work. From 1984 to 1998, a savage armed conflict raged in the predominantly Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey, with atrocities committed both by government forces and by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist insurgent group that then advocated separatism. In challenges to the government’s offenses, Kurdish human rights lawyers have scored an impressive string of victories at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. In cases decided by that court since 1996, the lawyers have documented widespread torture, disappearances, killings, and destruction of Kurdish villages. As a result of their efforts, Turkey has been held liable for millions of dollars in damages. Now these lawyers are sticking up for themselves. In a case pending before the ECHR, a group of them have alleged that Turkey’s treatment of lawyers violates the European Convention on Human Rights. The case stems from late 1993, when Turkish forces rounded up 25 human rights lawyers, most in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, on charges of aiding, abetting, and belonging to the PKK. The 25 made up virtually all of Diyarbakir’s human rights bar at the time. (Aslantas was not among them, because he was traveling outside eastern Turkey during the roundup; he was later imprisoned separately for a year.) After an eight-year domestic trial, a Turkish court found the 25 lawyers guilty and gave them suspended sentences. Sixteen of the 25 filed suit in the ECHR soon after their arrest, putting the persecution of lawyers on that court’s center stage for the first time. A decision is expected by the end of this year. The lawyers aim to win damages, and, more importantly, to apply pressure for further Turkish constitutional reform. According to the allegations in the case, Elci v. Turkey, two plainclothes policemen burst into the office of Tahir Elci in the southeastern town of Cizre on the morning of Nov. 23, 1993, and seized his case files. Altogether, Elci was held in custody for nearly three months. As interrogators questioned him about a Strasbourg case he was bringing on behalf of a destroyed village, they stripped Elci, beat him, squeezed his testicles, soaked him alternately in hot and cold water, and threatened his life. He was allotted one slice of bread each day. The husband-and-wife legal team of Mesut and Meral Danis Bestas, who were also arrested in November 1993, suffered similar treatment, with variations. Mesut was subjected to blaring nationalistic music. Meral endured crude sexual insults. They were released on Dec. 10, 1993, but Mesut was rearrested three days later and held another two months. In contrast to most of the 25 lawyers, Elci and the Bestases refused to sign confessions. Elci v. Turkey claims that some or all of 16 lawyers suffered violations of their right to liberty; their right to be free from torture or inhuman and degrading treatment; their right to office privacy; and their right to bring petitions to Strasbourg without harassment. More recently, the lawyers have also alleged due process violations in the domestic trial. If Turkey’s object was to intimidate the human rights bar, it seems to have succeeded. Of the 25 lawyers prosecuted, only three still defend political defendants in the state security courts — Mesut and Meral Bestas and Tahir Elci. When asked why he has held out, Elci flashes his deep-set dark eyes. “I’m from a mountain village,” says the 36-year-old stalwart. “We resist.” Kurdish human rights lawyers do not have long life expectancies: Five were gunned down during the most brutal period, between 1993 and 1994. One of them, elder statesman Medet Serhat, was shot while driving with his wife on a crowded Istanbul street, only weeks after he helped establish Turkey’s Foundation for Social and Legal Studies. Another victim, Faik Candan, was chair of the Kurdish political party in Ankara; Metin Can and Sevket Epozdemir were the sole representatives of Turkey’s Human Rights Association in the remote eastern towns of Elazig and Tatvan. The deaths of these men formed part of a general trend of unsolved extrajudicial killings that were later linked by a parliamentary investigation to state-backed paramilitary forces. The current elder statesman, Mustafa Ozer, who has been practicing for 22 years and chairs the Diyarbakir Bar Association, survives only because a bomb planted in his car in 1991 was mistimed. Five dead lawyers are no abstraction to Turkey’s human rights bar. Their portraits hang on office walls, and their cases (both the ones they brought and the ones brought for them) are still wending their way through the ECHR in Strasbourg. In Ankara, lawyer Husnu Ondul has an even more graphic warning of the risks he runs. His office door is pocked with nine bullet holes from the 1998 assassination attempt on his predecessor as Human Rights Association president, Akin Birdal. Birdal (who is not himself a lawyer) survived, and, after heavy pressure from Western diplomats, ten conspirators in his assault were convicted. The surviving human rights lawyers hardly need reminders of their precarious status. The chairs of the Human Rights Association branch offices in Istanbul and Diyarbakir each received death threats last year. Between them, these two lawyers face some 200 state prosecutions, on charges that include “engaging in separatist propaganda.” The five Kurdish lawyers representing PKK chair Abdullah Ocalan in the ECHR challenge of his death sentence in Turkey have ten cases pending against them and are worried that they will serve serious prison time. Since January 2001, at least 40 lawyers have been prosecuted for simply visiting their political clients in prisons. This trend has accelerated since November 2001, when the justice minister issued a circular with new restrictions on lawyer-client contact. “Lawyers cannot do their job,” complains Osman Ergin, the vice chairman of the Istanbul Bar Association. “Lawyers are starting to stay away from prisons.” Human rights lawyers also face more mundane forms of discrimination. Mesut Bestas, who was arrested during the 1993 roundup, complains that Turkey has criminalized “DMB — driving while a member of the bar.” He says he is routinely detained for several hours at the security checkpoints that dot the roads in the southeast. “My cousin once got detained for an hour just for being related to a lawyer,” says Bestas. A top Turkish justice official, Judge Abdulkadir Kaya, director-general of international law at the Justice Ministry, rejects the notion that his government has targeted human rights lawyers. “If there were persecution of lawyers,” he says in an interview at the Justice Ministry in Ankara, “that would violate Article 34 of the European Convention,” which guarantees the right to file a case in Strasbourg without pressure (and which was previously known as Article 25). So how does Judge Kaya explain the fact that the ECHR has repeatedly found that Turkey has violated this right? The most common basis for that finding, he accurately notes, is that police stop or detain applicants after they have filed their ECHR cases and ask them, “Are you taking a case to Strasbourg?” But that inquiry is not as innocent as the judge suggests. Even were it not expressly accompanied by the query, “Would you like to continue living?” (as is sometimes alleged), the question could indeed be menacing in the context of pervasive torture, disappearances, and killings. In any case, the ECHR has held that even gentle “pressure” of clients is improper. And “pressure” most definitely includes throwing an applicant’s legal team in jail. For the moment, Judge Kaya is correct that Turkey has never been confronted for wholesale violations of Article 34 in its treatment of lawyers. Elci v. Turkey will provide the ECHR the chance to give Judge Kaya the ultimate answer. While they hope that the court — and all of Europe — will publicly denounce Turkey’s sustained campaign against lawyers, Elci and the Bestases already feel a moral victory every morning when they go into work. Elci tells of a client who came into his office recently with a forensic report documenting that eight kinds of torture by government officials led to the death of her husband. He gets up and forcefully kicks the air to mimic the beating the man underwent. At that moment, it’s easy to see the rage of a toddler who watched a Turkish officer beat his father with his own walking stick, as Elci once did. He is hardly ready to stop fighting back. Neither are Mesut and Meral Bestas, whose law office in Diyarbakir is lined with documents from the 30 cases they have filed in Strasbourg. And Elci v. Turkey is not the only one in which they are applicants. An adviser to Diyarbakir’s first domestic abuse center, Meral Bestas denounced rape under custody during a February 2001 phone interview with a Kurdish cable television station based in Brussels. Soon afterward, a state prosecutor asked the police to investigate Meral’s ethics, politics, and drinking habits. Mesut promptly filed a freedom of speech claim on his wife’s behalf at the ECHR. The Bestases just won’t miss an opportunity to take a stand. When their sons, now ages 8 and 4, were born, the couple gave them Kurdish names, in violation of Turkish law. “I hope the state prosecutes,” says Mesut gleefully. “Then we’ll bring the case to Strasbourg.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.