Turkish lawyers protest against government plan to reform bar associations

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thousands of Turkish lawyers protested outside Istanbul’s main courthouse on Tuesday against a government plan to reform bar associations, saying it aims to silence dissent and will lead to politicisation of their profession.

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Under a draft law presented to parliament on Tuesday by President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, multiple bar associations could be formed in each of Turkey’s provinces. Only one is currently allowed per province.

AK Party lawmaker Cahit Ozkan told reporters the bill was needed because bar associations were no longer able to function properly following a 13-fold increase in the number of lawyers in Turkey since the existing law first came into effect.

New lawyers would now be allowed to register with any bar in the province, according to the draft law.

The protesters say it is an attempt to dilute the existing bar associations, which have emerged as leading critics of the Erdogan government’s record on the rule of law and human rights.

The associations say the judicial system has descended into chaos with lawyers jailed, defences muzzled and confidence in judges and prosecutors destroyed.

“Lawyers being registered with different bars will lead to division. Lawyers will be classified according to their bars... We think there are serious dangers,” said one lawyer at the protest who declined to give her name.

In the southern city of Adana police used pepper spray to disperse hundreds of protesting lawyers who had chanted slogans such as “defence cannot be silenced”.

Mehmet Durakoglu, head of the Istanbul Bar Association, said his association would continue to fight against the bill, even though it is likely to become law given the majority that the AK Party and its nationalist MHP allies have in parliament.

“We will use our democratic rights to the end so that (the bill) does not pass,” he told the protesters.

Reporting by Murad Sezer, Ali Kucukgocmen and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Gareth Jones