Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği (Contemporary Lawyers’ Association), ÇHD for short, has become a symbol of the fight against unlawfulness and violations of the right to defend suffered by lawyers in Turkey. The association is the primary defender for crucial legal cases such as the Soma mine disaster and the Nuriye Gülmen – Semih Özakça case – two academics who lost their jobs with a statutory decree signed by the president. There are currently prison sentences given to 18 ÇHD-member lawyers. There is also a 7-year old trial, still ongoing, faced by 15 lawyers.
Practitioners of law constitute one of the occupational groups in Turkey that face unlawfulness. Apart from being deprived of their right to defend and being ignored during court hearings, today, lawyers are detained and even arrested with complete disregard for the code of lawyers. One of the most interesting cases relevant to the arrest of lawyers is the ÇHD case, involving many lawyers including the chairman of the association, Selçuk Kozağaçlı.
Kozağaçlı has been the attorney in many critical legal cases along with his friends. Following the Soma mine disaster killing 301 mine workers, he took on the job of defending the families of the deceased, for which he has suffered physical attacks from law enforcement before the court hearings.
In January of 2013, the arrest of 15 ÇHD members was ordered and their offices were unlawfully invaded. Among them, Selçuk Kozağaçlı, learned about the arrest order while abroad, returned to Turkey and got arrested. Spending 14 months in prison, he was charged with being a member of an illegal organization just like many other arrested lawyers. Kozağaçlı was released after the court hearing on March 21, 2014. As of now, there are no longer any lawyers still arrested in this on-going case.
Declared five days after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, the state of emergency (OHAL) started two new waves of arrests for Kozağaçlı and his colleagues.
The numerous statutory decrees (KHK) signed by the president following the state of emergency declared on July 20, 2016 deprived thousands of public workers of their jobs, closed down a large number of media organizations and associations. One of the associations closed down was ÇHD, where Selçuk Kozağaçlı was the chairman. Statutory decree numbered 677, publicized on November 22, 2016, closed down ÇHD as well as Association of Libertarian Lawyers (Özgürlükçü Hukukçular Derneği), Lawyers’ Association of Mesopotamia (Mezopotamya Hukukçular Derneği), and Association of the School of Justice (Adalet Okulu Derneği).
Among the thousands of public workers, who lost their jobs with statutory decrees, were Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça. They started a demonstration in front of the Statue of Human Rights (İnsan Hakları Heykeli) on Yüksel Street of Ankara in order to make themselves heard by the public. Soon after, their demonstration turned into a hunger strike and eventually got them arrested on May 23, 2017. Lawyers of Gülmen and Özakça’s were ÇHD-members.
Media organizations sympathetic to the government started doing propaganda-like broadcasting against the two academics’ strike, which found great applause from the public. It was not only Gülmen and Özakça who were charged being members of an illegal organizations, the same applied to their lawyers too.
July 19, 2017 – A suspect detained by the police made a statement claiming Gülmen, Özakça and 20 lawyers, members of ÇHD and People’s Office of Law (Halkın Hukuk Bürosu) were members of an illegal organization. Throughout the proceedings of the lawsuit, this person kept changing statements, making additions to them.
July 21, 2017 – The Ministry of Interior released a booklet on its official website, making allegations against Nuriye Gülmen, Semih Özakça and their lawyers. At that point, there were no legal provisions against them. The booklet was titled The Never-ending Plot of a Terrorist Organization – The Truth about Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça (Bir Terör Örgütünün Bitmeyen Senaryosu – Nuriye Gülmen ve Semih Özakça Gerçeği).
September 12, 2017 – Two days prior to the court hearing of Gülmen-Özakça, as a pre-trial arrest,16 lawyers were detained for 8 days. 15 of them got arrested. Gülmen and Özakça’s lawyers were among the 15.
November 3, 2017 – President Erdoğan said during a rally: “Extreme left, to our regret…these people abuse and provoke families. They play games on families. We are well aware of who these are. Families of our martyrs should stop this game.” He was targeting Selçuk Kozağaçlı and the other lawyers defending the families of those killed in the Soma Mine Massacre.
5 days after Erdoğan’s words, Selçuk Kozağaçlı was detained and later on November 13, 2017, arrested.
In about a month after, Yaprak Türkmen also got arrested, pushing the number of arrested lawyers to 17. On March 2, 2018, a lawsuit was filed against 20 lawyers, 17 of them were arrested pre-trial. The indictment accused Kozağaçlı and others with being members of an illegal organization based solely on allegations of one person and called for heavy imprisonment.
One year after the arrests, between September 10-14, the lawyers went before the judge. During the first hearing held in Bakırköy Courthouse, they were physically attacked by the military police (jandarma), their clothes were ripped apart, and handcuffed in the courtroom in front of the judicial panel. On Day 5 of the trial, the judges decided that the hearings should take place in the courtroom adjacent to the Silivri Penitentiaries Campus. Over 300 lawyers went to Silivri for the hearings that went for 5 days.
On September 14, 2018, the last day of the trial, around 10 PM, the judicial panel decided in favor of their release. 9 lawyers who were in Silivri Prison were released at 6:30 AM in the morning, while the other 8 from Bakırköy Prison were released at 4:30 AM.
The reason for not releasing them earlier despite the ruling was later understood: the prosecutor had issued an objection to the ruling after midnight. Following the objection, on September 15, 2018 the judicial panel met on a Saturday night and voted unanimously for the arrest of 12 of the lawyers, for whom they had accepted release unanimously the day before.
Their release was met with great cheer, especially from lawyers, who also planned a celebration at the Istanbul Bar Association for September 15. On their way to the celebration, newly released lawyers Aycan Çiçek, Aytaç Ünsal, Engin Gökoğlu and Behiç Aşçı were detained by the Counter-Terrorism Police in the street of the bar association. On the same day, Ahmet Mandacı, another lawyer, was detained from his family home in the city of Çanakkale.
On Sunday, September 16, lawyers Çiçek, Ünsal, Gökoğlu and Aşçı went before the Istanbul 37th Assize Court. Lawyers asked for the removal of the Counter-Terrorism Police from the courtroom, which was overruled on grounds of the “publicity of the hearing”. “Accused” lawyers refused to give identification protesting the court and the unlawfulness; and they got, once again, arrested.
Next, Ahmet Mandacı, detained in Çanakkale, got arrested through a video conference call (SEGBİS). It was surprising for the judicial panel too, when the ÇHD chairman Selçuk Kozağaçlı entered the courtroom during the hearing. Not seeming to care for the arrest order for himself, Kozağaçlı, availed himself to a stroll into the courtroom, having previously stopped by the bar’s office, called his lawyers and shared a video on social media explaining why he was going to the courthouse. He said in the video that he did not see the arrest order as one worthy of following and added: “I did not come here to follow suit with an order. The reason I came here is because I wanted to throw their impudence, fear, and shame in their faces.”
Having walked into the courtroom and found a seat for himself in the section for the accused, Selçuk Kozağaçlı said to the panel “Before you will find an arrest order for myself. Here I am, I helped myself in.”
Perplexed from seeing the “fugitive” Kozağaçlı and not knowing what to, the judicial panel left the courtroom. They came back soon after and announced that they will discuss the ruling regarding Ahmet Mandacı and left the room again. Later, they ordered the police to leave the courtroom. When the lawyers resisted, force was used upon them. Kozağaçlı was taken to the police station while Mandacı was arrested. The next day, Kozağaçlı was also arrested without any record of his statement in front of the court he was taken to (For a more detailed description of the events, see Tora Pekin’s article Akbabanın Üç Günü (Three days of the Vulture) published in the Autumn, 2018 issue of the magazine Express.)
On September 19, 2019, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (Hâkimler ve Savcılar Kurulu) disbanded the judicial panel that decided on the release order for the lawyers. In the hearings that followed (December 3-5, 2018) the criminal procedure was completely disregarded. On December 4; first, the viewers and journalists, and then, the defendants’ lawyers, and lastly the defendants were thrown out of the courtroom and the trial proceeded with only the judicial panel present.
A witness, claiming to be an intelligence officer, was heard while no one else was present. The lawyers claimed that the witnesses were heard in an unlawful manner under the influence of the judicial panel. The panel asked for opinion as to the accusations from the prosecutor two times, once on October 1, 2019 and then for a second time on February 4, 2019.
The arrested lawyers went on a hunger strike on January 24, 2019 (on the Day of the Endangered Lawyer) in order to draw attention to the unlawfulness and demand fair trial until March 18th, the day they went on trial again.
On February 21, 2019, the prosecutor presented their opinion as to the accusations. In the opinion comprised of only four pages, the prosecutor was accusing the lawyers of being members of DHKP/C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) and asking heavy imprisonment for them.
On March 7, 2019, bar associations of Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Antalya, Bursa and Aydın issued a complaint to the Council of Judges and Prosecutors about the demeanors of the judges of the 37th Assize Court.
The judges did not allow the defendants’ lawyers into the courtroom on March 20, 2019. In the courtroom, where the protesting defendants were absent, the decision was presented: imprisonment of 18 years and 9 months for Barkın Timtik, 13 years and 6 months for Özgür Yılmaz and Ebru Timtik, 12 years for Behiç Aşçı and Şükriye Erden, 10 years and 15 months for Selçuk Kozağaçlı, 10 years and 6 months for Engin Gökoğlu, Aytaç Ünsal, Süleyman Gökten, 9 years for Aycan Çiçek and Naciye Demir, 7 years and 12 months for Ezgi Çakır, 3 years and 9 months for Yağmur Ereren, Yaprak Türkmen, Didem Baydar Ünsal, and Ayşegül Çağatay, 2 years 13 months for Zehra Özdemir and Ahmet Mandacı.
One of the strongest reactions to the decision came from the Istanbul Bar Association. Their press release read: “As the Istanbul Bar Association, we hereby express that we are experiencing a first in the history of Turkish jurisdiction…We will never give up on our ideals of justice as the Istanbul Bar Association and attorneys-at-law. We will never be silenced. Even if we are left alone.”
The case is currently being processed by the Court Cassation. The case that was previously opened against Selçuk Kozağaçlı and his friends, on the other hand, is still ongoing. On February 3, 2020, 8 arrested lawyers, members of ÇHD, went on hunger strike expressing that the practice of law cannot be subjected to trial.