The Union of Turkish Notaries (Türkiye Noterler Birliği, or TNB) has helped the Erdogan government in the unlawful prosecution of lawyers by sharing attorney-client information in a clear breach of the confidentiality that is protected under Turkish law as well as under international conventions to which Turkey is a party.
According to a secret TNB communication obtained by Nordic Monitor, the secretary-general of the organization submitted to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office the notarial work involved in power of attorney documents that were processed for an influential lawyer in Ankara. The document, dated Dec. 7, 2016 and signed by the secretary-general of the TNB, details the paperwork completed by various notaries across Turkey for power of attorney documents for Mehmet Rasim Kuseyri, a well-known defense lawyer in the Turkish capital, with his clients in provinces around the country.
The prosecutor was trying to determine if Kuseyri had a contract in the form of a power of attorney for government critics Fethullah Gülen to represent his legal interests, as if entering into such an agreement is a crime. There is no such crime defined in the Turkish Penal Code; yet the prosecutor was hoping to present it as criminal evidence against the lawyer.
Kuseyri, who was arrested on Aug. 22, 2016 and has been in jail since then on fabricated charges, was targeted by the government because he represented government critics in a number of cases. His firm was one of the most popular lawyers’ offices in Turkey and was a top taxpayer in the Ankara legal community. The evidence against him was dollar bills found in his home during a police search. He explained in court that the dollars were exchanged by his daughter, who had gone to Chicago to take English language courses.
Nordic Monitor previously published a story titled “Turkey’s war on the US one dollar bill to justify persecution of its critics” which stated that arresting and prosecuting people for possession of a US dollar bill seems too crazy to be true, but it is when it comes to Turkey, where owning a greenback in a one-dollar denomination may very well land you in prison on terrorism charges.
In fact, thousands of people, including a US-Turkish dual national who worked for NASA and a prominent professor and author who travels frequently, were charged under terrorism laws in Turkey based on the evidence that they had one dollar bills in their possession. Court documents present pictures of one dollar bills with various serial numbers as criminal evidence against defendants who have become victims of a relentless persecution conducted against critics by the Erdoğan government.
Many believe the made-up charges concerning the use of a dollar bill in Turkey’s abusive criminal justice system is part of a grand scheme on the part of the Erdoğan government to fan anti-US sentiment. By spreading false accusations based on the US currency, his government also created a pretext for detaining hundreds of thousands of people. According to a state-run Anadolu news agency report on March 10, 2019, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said 511,000 people had been detained since 2016 as part of a crackdown on the Gülen movement.
In Kuseyri’s case, the Turkish prosecutor asked the TNB whether there was any power of attorney executed between him and Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish Muslim scholar and chief critic of the Turkish government for pervasive corruption and Erdoğan’s support for armed jihadist groups in Syria and other places. The TNB document confirms long-held suspicions that the Turkish government tracks the notarial transactions of critics in violation of privacy and confidentiality laws.
The TNB went even beyond what the prosecutor asked, which was to determine if there was any power of attorney for Gülen and Kuseyri. It found none. The original request from prosecutor Gümüş on Nov. 26, 2016 that was transmitted in a secret communication only asked if the lawyer had any power of attorney for Gülen. But the TNB released much more information than requested and detailed all 79 powers of attorney signed by Kuseyri with other clients in 2014 and 2015. It also included all the powers of attorney Gülen received from various notaries between 2014 and 2016. By doing so, the TNB violated the confidentiality of attorney-client communications and became a willing accomplice in the witch-hunt carried out by the government, which views such powers of attorney as evidence of terrorism.
A Turkish lawyer speaking on condition of anonymity told Nordic Monitor that the document is scandalous and in fact violates the Notary Law, which requires strict confidentiality for work done by notaries public. The lawyer also underlined that the attorney-client relationship cannot be criminalized and used as evidence in the prosecution of a lawyer simply because he or she represented a person deemed a critic by the government.
Unfortunately, in what was seen as criminalization of the right to a legal defense and the punishment of lawyers for representing government critics, the Erdoğan government cracked down on bar associations and prosecuted hundreds of lawyers on terrorism charges. According to data maintained by the Arrested Lawyers’ Initiative, 581 lawyers have been arrested, 1,542 prosecuted and 168 lawyers convicted in Turkey since 2016.
Some of the lawyers arrested in Turkey face enormous pressure and, in some instances, are compelled to testify against their clients, violating the principle of attorney-client privilege. Criminal defense lawyers in particular are subject to intense pressure and threats when working on cases that involve government critics. In many instances, lawyers have been associated with their clients and their clients’ causes and face punishment for representing them, amounting to a violation of articles 16 and 18 of the UNHCR’s Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) also put Turkey on notice in a report released in January 2016 and stated that “many human rights activists and lawyers have been targeted on the ground of anti-terrorist legislation.” The actions of the Turkish government and accomplices such as the TNB violate the right to access to a lawyer guaranteed under of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is a party.
The TNB may also be violating the guidelines of the International Union of Notaries, of which it is a member, as well as the membership rules of the Council of the Notariats of the European Union (CNUE), of which it is an observer member.