Rights group seeks to use UK sanctions to stop abuse of Turkish lawyers

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Ümit Bektaş/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ümit Bektaş/Reuters

Campaigners are seeking to use the UK’s Magnitsky-style human rights sanctions against Turkish prosecutors and officials responsible for arresting and imprisoning thousands of lawyers.

Organisers of the Arrested Lawyers Initiative (ALI) are gathering evidence about the alleged torture and mistreatment of judges and legal representatives detained in Turkish jails.

The ALI says that since the failed coup against the government in 2016, almost all the leaders of Turkey’s local bar associations and judges who refused to act on the government’s direction “have been detained and arrested on trumped-up charges as part of criminal investigations”.

At least 1,500 lawyers have been prosecuted, according to the organisation, a further 600 are awaiting trial and 441 lawyers have been sentenced to a total of 2,278 years in jail.

“Many of those who have been detained have been subject to torture, solitary confinement, denial of health services and access to counsel. Some have died in custody,” the organisation said.

A submission is being prepared for the Foreign Office by two barristers, Kevin Dent QC and Michael Polak, in the hope it will trigger the use of new powers, UK global rights sanctions, which came into force this year.

The measures punish those suspected of inflicting serious rights violations abroad, even if carried out against their own nationals.

The regulations, made under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, copy the example of the US’s Magnitsky Act. That legislation opened the way for US authorities to impose punitive sanctions on Russian officials allegedly responsible for the death of a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail in 2009 after uncovering corruption.

In July this year, the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced the first “Magnitsky-style” sanctions against 49 individuals and organisations involved in “some of the most notorious human rights violations and abuses”.

Asking ministers to punish officials in a fellow Nato state, however, will be diplomatically more challenging.

Conditions in Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government initiated waves of mass arrests and repression of civil rights following the 2016 failed coup have been widely condemned.

As well as lawyers, journalists, rights activists, academics, teachers and civil servants are among victims of the clampdown. Judges have also been dismissed, detained or imprisoned.

In one case, highlighted by the ALI, a Turkish lawyer, Erdem Semih Yıldız, was allegedly tortured in Ankara police headquarters.

Others detained include Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty International in Turkey, and the writer Ahmet Altan. The human rights lawyer Ebru Timtik died in August after going on hunger strike in protest at being denied a fair trial.

“Many of those who have been detained have been subject to torture, solitary confinement, denial of health services and access to counsel. Some have died in custody,” the ALI said.

Senior lawyers in the UK are among those who have raised concerns. David Greene, the president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: “What’s happening in Turkey is an obscenity with thousands of lawyers facing prosecution for doing their day job.

“We have to admire people who face risks and danger but continue to do the work …We owe it to them to make a noise.”

In a speech to Gresham College in London this week, Prof Thomas Grant QC said lawyers in Turkey were being targeted simply because of who they represented. He said “lawyers representing clients charged with terrorism-related offences [are] themselves taken into custody for ‘assisting a terrorist organisation’”.

UK courts are declining to extradite suspects to Turkey where they believe requests are politically motivated or on the grounds that prison conditions are overcrowded and unsafe. Under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, officials of a foreign state can be punished if their activities involve killing individuals, subjecting them to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or forcing them into slavery or compulsory labour.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The Turkish government has a right to act against the perpetrators of the coup attempt in 2016 but it is vital that any measures taken are proportionate and in line with Turkey’s international human rights obligations.

“We regularly raise our human rights concerns with the Turkish authorities and the foreign secretary did so in a meeting with his counterpart in July.”

The Turkish embassy has been asked for comment.