Turkey’s Constitutional Court rules in favor of lawyer prosecuted for defending tortured client

The Constitutional Court of Turkey

Turkey’s Constitutional Court has ruled in favor of Barzan Demirhan, a lawyer prosecuted for allegedly threatening a police officer while defending a client subjected to torture, stating that his rights to freedom of expression and respect for private life were violated and awarding him TL 40,000 ($1,225) in non-pecuniary damages, the Bianet news website reported.

Demirhan’s prosecution began after he claimed his client was tortured at the İstanbul Police Department’s anti-terror branch. A police officer subsequently accused Demirhan of threatening him.

Despite a forensic report documenting the client’s physical trauma, Demirhan was charged with “issuing a threat” and fined by an İstanbul court. He was also given a 75-day suspension from practicing law.

Unable to obtain a remedy through appeals, Demirhan took his case to the Constitutional Court.

In his application he argued that the accusations were part of a deliberate effort by the police to silence him for exposing torture. He claimed that he and four colleagues faced investigations based on fabricated reports, leading to restrictions on their involvement in numerous cases. He concluded that the practice effectively violated his right to private life since it hindered his professional activities and livelihood.

The top court criticized the lower court’s handling of the case, noting that the only evidence against Demirhan was the police report. It emphasized that the court did not investigate why the security footage from the incident was erased, nor did it seek out potential exculpatory evidence.

“The judgment against Demirhan lacked a sufficient basis in law,” the Constitutional Court stated. “The harsh penalty, including the suspension of his legal practice, was disproportionate and imposed an undue burden on the applicant.”

The Constitutional Court’s decision highlights ongoing concerns about judicial independence and the protection of lawyers in Turkey, particularly those defending politically sensitive cases.

In recent years attorneys representing members of the faith-based Gülen movement, inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, and Kurdish political activists have faced similar prosecutions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations in 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following an abortive putsch in 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Human rights groups and international organizations have criticized Turkish authorities for prosecuting lawyers based on the identity of their clients.

Since the 2016 failed coup, following which the Turkish government launched a massive crackdown on non-loyalist citizens under the pretext of an anti-coup fight, some 1,700 lawyers have been prosecuted, with 700 of them being put in pretrial detention.

Turkey was ranked 117th among 142 countries in the rule of law index published by the World Justice Project (WJP) in October, in a sign of the deteriorating rule of law in the country.

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