Human rights. Where fear is a way of legal life

Imagine this: a crowd of people, smiling faces, all supporters of your cause, each one eager to talk to you. But a nagging doubt remains at the back of your mind: “What if somebody here wants to kill me?”

This is just another meeting for Erin Keskin, a Turkish human rights lawyer. Her fears are understandable. She has had her car machine-gunned, spent six months in prison for writing a letter to the Belgian parliament, and has another prison sentence hanging over her pending an appeal. Keskin should be in fear of her life, yet she looks calm and serene, cracking jokes and talking far too fast in her native Turkish. Her only weakness appears to be cigarettes, which she smokes perpetually.

Courtesy of Amnesty International, Keskin is on a trip to the UK to meet lawyers and Kurdish supporters and to raise publicity for her cause. The last time she tried to get to the UK, she was arrested at the airport before leaving Turkey and detained. This time, she has made it to a series of meetings with senior UK legal figures, such as Bar Council chairman Robert Owen QC and members of the Law Society's human rights watchdog, as well as Kurdish community groups.

In Turkey, Keskin spends her time trying to work within a legal system which has been condemned by Amnesty Inter- national. She constantly negotiates bureaucracy, making official complaints in cases of torture and arranging medical support for victims. Lodging such complaints on a daily basis singles Keskin out and makes her work difficult. The fact that she is a former secretary of the Turkish Human Rights Association makes things even harder.

“We're against the system and we constantly talk about the need for change,” she says. “Because of this, we are subject to persecution and oppression. Meetings are closed, members are killed, and publications are confiscated.”

And that is just out of court. In Turkish courts, it is not uncommon for the security guards to beat defendants who make political statements – and their lawyers are not immune from such assaults. So has Keskin been beaten in court? She is sanguine: “They were beating my clients. I intervened and they started beating me too.”

But it is the day-to-day tedium which Keskin finds hardest. “They always bring prisoners to court late,” she explains, offering an example of the common delays within the Turkish courts. “A case that's supposed to start at 10am can end up starting at 5pm. This makes working conditions very difficult for lawyers.”

As a Kurd, Keskin is part of a race which is very conscious of its historical position. Spreading across the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and parts of the old Soviet Union, the Kurds have always been regarded as an embarrassment to colonial powers such as the UK, who agreed the borders which denied them their own nation.

“To be a Kurd in Turkey means to not be in charge of your identity,” Keskin says. “You can't speak your own language, you don't have your own schools or education, and you can't even give your children Kurdish names.”

Keskin had the desire to be a lawyer from an early age. Born into a progressive middle class family in Western Turkey, she was spared the inequalities that face poor Kurds in the East. She says her childhood took place in an “enlightened atmosphere” adding: “I always wanted to be a lawyer – perhaps it was because I saw injustices and I wanted to put them right.”

Those injustices have been watched with alarm by lawyers in the UK, who have taken a keen interest in Turkey. The Nato-member country has been subject to a number of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, which has been highly critical of its human rights record – and it is this record which is believed to be the major stumbling block to Turkey's membership of the European Union.

In one of the most famous incidents in recent years, a group of 23 human rights lawyers were arrested at once and charged with “degrading the name of Turkey” by making “unwarranted” applications to the European Court. The two UK legal observers to the trial were told that the defendants were being tortured regularly.

Since her short incarceration, Keskin has almost come to regard such treatment and her own harassment as normal. “I was frightened at the beginning and then I got used to it. This level of fear is part of life in Turkey,” she says. “But it has an absurd side, too. If you have not received your threatening phone call for the day you think: 'Why haven't they called me? Does that mean I am surviving today?'”

The Law Society's International Liaison Officer, Fiona McKenzie, met Keskin on her recent trip and was impressed by her mental strength. “She's clearly a very strong and principled woman,” says McKenzie, who also expressed concern over Keskin's future once she returns to Turkey.

However, there appears to be a glimmer of hope. Keskin says that many of the human rights lawyers are beginning to be treated with a new respect by parts of the legal system. “If you're a lawyer who takes on political cases, there is always the feeling of being under threat, but there is also a sense of respect from the court,” she says. “Many lawyers do not take on these cases because they are afraid. Our relationship with the judges is very good. Quite a few are also unhappy with the system, but their job is to rule under it and they have to do it. If you are a good lawyer and you read your brief carefully, there is still a lot you can do.”

Keskin's visit and the attendant publicity raises many questions – not least whether the involvement of UK lawyers in the human rights problems of another country actually makes any difference. Fiona McKenzie is convinced, for one, that it is the duty of lawyers to get involved. “One of the reasons for intervening for fellow members of the profession is because if lawyers do not care about each other, who is going to care about them?” she says.

And, not surprisingly, Keskin also has no doubt. “I believe that solidarity is essential to build a humane system of law and it is lawyers who will do this,” she says, then pauses, perhaps to reflect on the irony of what she is about to say, “And, although we in Turkey are the ones having trouble, I hope that the time will come when we can do the same for you.”