MLSA Co-Director Veysel Ok receives Thomas Dehler Medal

5 April 2019
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Aret Demirci
Photo Credit

Lawyer Veysel Ok, who has defended dozens of journalists in Turkey who were prosecuted for their work, was awarded the Thomas Dehler Medal 2019, given in the honor of the first Minister of Justice of the Federal Republic of Germany. Ok is awarded this prestigious medal for his work in advocating for freedom of speech and the rule of law in Turkey.

The medal was presented in a ceremony held in Munich on April 5. Lawyer Ok received his medal from Germany’s former Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

The event started with Thomas Dehler Foundation President Thomas Hacker's welcoming remarks. ARD special correspondent Bernhard Niebruegge made a detailed presentation about the situation in Turkey, sharing detailed information about the deplorable conditions of political prisons. He also shared the results of MLSA- IPI's Justice Monitoring report supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.Addressing the audience prior to presenting theThomas Dehler medal, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger acknowledged the difficulty of doing freedom of expression related advocacy in Turkey's current environment. She also described the MLSA and its work.

In his acceptance speech, Ok noted that April 5 is marked as Lawyers Day in Turkey. "It makes me incredibly proud to receive this award on such a meaningful day, especially since this award is given in the name of Thomas Dehler, German Federate Republic’s first Minister of Justice and a very esteemed figure who had made great contributions to constitutional law." he said. 

Ok said, "I’d like to remind you that there are still many lawyers, journalists, and academics who continue to say what they believe to be right and resist the system while practising their profession with dignity. Academics for Peace and the petition they’ve signed is a great example of that. Although Turkey is heavily oppressed, we still have a strong opposition that is ready to fight no matter what, including skilled civil society workers and brave lawyers. Of course, you’re all aware of this. The fact that you honor me with this award shows that you acknowledge and celebrate this fact."

He also commemorated the former President of Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi who was killed in an unsolved murder three years prior. "I’d like to dedicate this award to him and to all other lawyers who are currently imprisoned in Turkey for simply doing their jobs and defending their clients, as well as all journalists, writers, and activists who are behind bars for expressing their ideas." he said. The full text of his speech can be found at the end of this article.

MEP and Thomas Dehler Foundation Board Member Nadja Hirsch made final remarks at the prize ceremony, thanking thanking Ok for his bravery.

About Veysel OK

Formerly a lawyer for many prominent journalists in Turkey, including imprisoned former Taraf Editor-in Chief Ahmet Altan and columnist Şahin Alpay, Ok currently faces “denigrating the Turkish judiciary system” charges per Turkish Penal Code’s notorious Article 301 for an interview he has given in 2015.

As part of the Media and Law Studies Association's (MLSA) work, where he is a co-founder and currently co-director, Ok continues to defend 11 imprisoned journalists including Nedim Türfent, Ziya Ataman, Salih Turan, İdris Yılmaz and İdris Sayılgan and many other persecuted journalists and academics.

About the Thomas Dehler medal

As a lawyer, Thomas Dehler defended in court Jewish citizens during the Nazi regime and later became the first Minister of Justice of the Federal Republic of Germany. Dehler also served as a chairman of the Free Democratic Party and left a formidable legacy for defending Constitutional institutions throughout his political life. In light of his legacy, every year this medal is given to an individual who has achieved outstanding success in furthering the rule of law and contributing to the protection of the right to freedom of speech.

Full speech of MLSA Co-Director Veysel Ok:

Dear guests,

Today is April 5th, also known as the Lawyers’ Day. It makes me incredibly proud to receive this award on such a meaningful day, especially since this award is given in the name of Thomas Dehler, German Federate Republic’s first Minister of Justice and a very esteemed figure who had made great contributions to constitutional law.

To emphasize the significance of this prize, I want to paint you a current picture of our country which treats lawyers, journalists, writers, human rights activists, and anyone who dares to express their ideas freely extremely cruelly.

To tell you the truth, Turkey has never had an independent or impartial judiciary. Lawyers, journalists, and writers have never been free in our republican history. Lawsuits and prison sentences have always been weapons that the Turkish state used against lawyers and journalists. Up until the 2000s, Kemalist elites served as judges. During the 2000s, Islamist figures who are close to Fethullah Gülen’s network have become judges, and since 2012 the prosecutors and judges have openly become pro-government figures.

Then what has changed since the coup attempt in 2016? The judiciary has traditionally oppressed the Kurdish intelligentsia, lawyers, and journalists; those who discuss the Armenian genocide; dissident leftists, and Alawites. Following the coup attempt, the judiciary began to target a much larger group; anyone who is critical of the government can feel the wrath of our judiciary at this point. In the 90s, we’ve seen many Kurdish or socialist journalists and lawyers fall victim to extrajudicial murders. But even in those days, we could see courts that could rule in favor of freedom of expression, courts that could protect the very principles of lawyering. Since the coup attempt, the judiciary explicitly oppresses and penalizes every segment of the society while disregarding all national and international legislations. We cannot say “there are hindrances to the right to freedom of expression and the right to defense in Turkey,” anymore because there is no such thing as the right to freedom of expression and the right to defense in Turkey.

The Turkish Constitution which was drafted in the aftermath of the 1980 coup was the product of a military regime. Despite being the product of a military state, this constitution protects lawyers, intellectuals and journalists and their right to freedom of expression and occupational activities. However, Turkish courts don’t even abide by this constitution. Courts blatantly disregard the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, which are foundational texts that shape and determine our domestic law.

The weak link between the rule of law that existed prior to the coup attempt and our judiciary has been severed completely. Now, we’re facing a system that cannot even manage to abide by its own laws, or chooses not to. It is not enough to say that Turkey is not a state of law anymore. Prior to the coup attempt, the judiciary used to be a small part of a larger problem of democracy and its tools; however, now the judiciary itself has become our greatest problem.

Despite this cruel and pessimistic picture, I’d like to remind you that there are still many lawyers, journalists, and academics who continue to say what they believe to be right and resist the system while practising their profession with dignity. Academics for Peace and the petition they’ve signed is a great example of that. Although Turkey is heavily oppressed, we still have a strong opposition that is ready to fight no matter what, including skilled civil society workers and brave lawyers. Of course, you’re all aware of this. The fact that you honor me with this award shows that you acknowledge and celebrate this fact.

Lastly, I’d like to commemorate the former President of Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi who we lost to a dark murder three years ago. I’d like to dedicate this award to him and to all other lawyers who are currently imprisoned in Turkey for simply doing their jobs and defending their clients, as well as all journalists, writers, and activists who are behind bars for expressing their ideas.
I’d like to thank you all for making the time to come here and be with us amid your busy schedules. We know that you will continue to stand with those who are silenced and imprisoned for doing their jobs and that you will continue to support these dissident voices from Turkey.

Thank you very much.