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    Professor Gill H. Boehringer
    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; February 11-15, 2014


    Gill H. Boehringer
    Honorary Associate, School of Law, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

    The contemporary world, dominated by the neoliberal policies and practices associated with “free market” globalisation, has seen the imposition of terrible conditions upon hundreds of millions of people around the globe. But repression and exploitation are never simply imposed. They arise out of historically prepared conditions and in the specific social circumstances of the time. How these are realized depends on the existing array of social forces. Of course in our era, the forces of wealth and power associated with corporate capital and which control the nation states, are dominant. The people are being trampled upon. But the people will always resist sooner or later, and today, across the globe, we also see that resistance in many forms. And when the people resist, there will always be lawyers who stand with them.

    Over the past fifteen years there has been an upsurge of radical critique of law, legal institutions and the practice of law as the impacts of globalization and the “war on terror” are felt around the globe. That impact includes increased state surveillance and repression, and human rights abuse often in circumstances of impunity. At the same time, corporate power has been unleashed so that conditions for working class and even middle class people have seriously deteriorated, inequality has grown significantly, and the threat to the environment has become an existential crisis.

    Progressive lawyers have formed organisations for the practice of law in the interests of the people, e.g. People’s Lawyers offices (Turkey) and the Philippine National Union of People’s Lawyers with branches throughout the country. The Turkish and NUPL lawyers have linked up with civil society groups, trade unions and political parties of the left to challenge state repression and corporate exploitation. In response, they have been the subject of state legal harassment and assassinations by military and paramilitary groups in a number of countries.

    Left critiques of law have once again been delivered after some years of relative silence after the largely Marxist influenced work of the late 1960s to early 1980s, this time, significantly, including a new attack on traditional understandings of international law, much of which comes from the scholars associated with TWAIL (Third World Approaches to International Law; see also the excellent electronic journal from Warwick University, Law, Social Justice, and Global Development available online at

    One development that is of particular interest to people’s lawyers is the increasing use of People’s Tribunals, linked as they are to campaigns for social justice and the exposure and prevention of injustice. They deal with a wide variety of issues, but all are concerned with violations of civil liberties, human rights and abuses of the environment by states and increasingly by corporations. Such tribunals are a reflection of the contemporary withdrawal of faith in the willingness of states-and corporations-to act to protect humans, other creatures and the environment according to acceptable standards of law and morality.

    In some parts of the world, there has been a more pronounced, physical withdrawal from the state: the establishment of autonomous areas, or what might be called liberated zones. Twenty years ago, thanks to the thirst of the international media for good news stories, we were witnesses to the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapis, Mexico. Another example of which I have some specific knowledge is taking place in North Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey) where there is a Kurdish majority. Activists in that area have been developing their own system of justice. It is part of a general program to build a decentralized confederal democracy outside the jurisdictional power of the Turkish state which has treated them as second class citizens. Their achievement in instituting that alternative justice system is a result of the inability of the Turkish state to impose a military solution due to the strength of the guerrilla army, the PKK, and the determined resistance of the people in the face of extraordinary atrocities against the civilian population in that region.

    I mention these developments because it is important that we learn the lessons-tactical, strategic, organisational, jurisprudential and philosophical, historical- which are out there in the experience of thousands of lawyers for the people and, of course, those with whom they resisted. Scattered over the globe and mostly unpublished, even undocumented, those lessons must be recovered and considered, especially by people’s lawyers and other progressives involved in any way in legal struggle. It is important for us to analyse the world in which we operate, the social forces which are arrayed for and against social justice, in order to see more clearly how best to engage in the struggles we face inside and outside the law, both in the short and long terms. Lawyers, and probably people’s lawyers at the beginning of their careers, have an understandable tendency (because of the nature of their legal education, the ideology and mystique of law, professional socialisation, requirements of the practice of law, client expectations, etc.) to be somewhat narrowly focused on the legal process, in particular the courts and other institutions of the state. Today progressive people, including people’s lawyers, need to be aware of the many different forms of people’s resistance, and be ready to apply their skills and knowledge in aid of such resistances, some of which will be outside the mainstream of legal struggle.

    It is also important that people’s lawyers consider the alternative modes of resistance lawyering that are developing across the world, including the importance of the ideology and organisation of people’s law work. I want to bring to the attention of members of the International Association of People’s Lawyers one model of progressive lawyering which challenges both the hegemony of capitalism, and the associated bourgeois understandings of the rule of law and its implementation by lawyers and state agencies around the globe. In the following section of my paper I will put the focus on one group of people’s lawyers who have a particularly interesting approach, not dissimilar to the “legal counter-offensive” discussed recently by our comrade, Filipino people’s lawyer and progressive Congressman Neri Colmenares. 1

    I recently visited the People’s Law Office (Halkin Hukuk Burosu) in Istanbul and found they had developed a rather unique structure, organisation and philosophy of progressive law work that was consistent with their political vision and ideology. Below I provide a transcript of an interview with two young HHB lawyers. below. I want the description of the HHB to be in the words of those members of the collective whom I interviewed. I offer this material not because HBB is a model which would suit all countries at this time, it surely wouldn’t, but because it represents one way of integrating one’s personal commitments, professional capacity and political-legal practice. It is important to document such an achievement.

    First, however, a few words to introduce the interview. The HHB is a collective of progressive lawyers who live and work together in the same house, located in a working class district some 25 minutes by car from Taksim Square, a major center of Istanbul (and in January 2013, the scene of the brutal police response to mass demonstrations to protect nearby Gezi Park from “development”). The house is about 4 stories high and although not appearing different from neighboring houses, it is immediately recognizable because of the HHB flag hanging out from the third level. The house, now owned by the HHB, has been converted into offices on the lower level, living spaces at the next level, and at the top, the kitchen and a lounge room which also serves as a TV room and Library for non-legal material.

    While waiting for the discussions to begin (I was a bit early and one of the lawyers who was coming to meet with me was caught in traffic, a big problem in the city) I had a look at the Library. After counting the shelves and establishing an average per shelf, I figured there were about 700-800 volumes. It is a fascinating collection, not at all what one expects in a law office. A quick reconnoiter revealed a shelf with many works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and a volume by Karl Korsch. Numerous tracts and pamphlets on such topics as proletarian culture took up another shelf. Chekhov and Sartre also appeared on the shelves, along with many other political and literary works. I saw a novel by the American radical Upton Sinclair, and about ½ dozen novels by “B. Traven” the mysterious anarcho-syndicalist who, true to his principles, wrote under a pseudonym. I also spotted a book by Abdullah Ocalan, the long time imprisoned leader of the Kurdish struggle for human rights and equality for all Turkey’s people.

    The interview with two people’s lawyers, both young women, follows. I have designated their responses under the sign of PL rather than using their names.
    The Interview

    GB: It would be helpful if you could give me some of the historical background to the HHB.

    PL: In 1960 there was a military coup in Turkey. This was resisted by students and a number of the university students were killed. Left lawyers had been supporting the activists. These lawyers, and others who were at University at the time, were developing a revolutionary consciousness in the following years.

    In 1969, several of these lawyers, including Halit Getenk and Niyaszi Agirnasli, founded the Democratic Revolutionist Lawyers organisation. In 1974, a second organization was formed, the Progressive Lawyers Association (PLA), which was formed for the purpose of providing legal assistance to students, activists and any others who were unable to obtain it for financial or political reasons. The cases were mainly criminal, political or involving labor law. There was no Marxist-Leninist party at that time. But the political orientation of these lawyers was Marxist-Leninist. They were being labelled “terrorists” by the agencies of the state.

    In 1980 there was another military coup. The situation became very grim. Human rights abuses were widespread. And now the state was facing a violent struggle with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK had for years attempted to negotiate social and political reforms so that the Kurdish people-and others-would have equal rights in Turkey. But the government’s response was severe repression. Reforms were out of the question. So the PKK had resorted to a guerrilla war. Tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed by Turkish military forces.. As a result of deliberate state policy, nearly 5000 villages were destroyed and the homeless forced to evacuate the area. Familiar counter-guerrilla tactics. Many hundreds of PKK members, their supporters and those suspected of being supporters were arrested, detained and tortured. Diyarbakir prison, built in 1980 in the major city of the Kurdish region and near the PKK strongholds, was a major torture center and gained an international reputation as one of the world’s worst prisons. Dozens of prisoners died at that prison.

    The PLA was an open organization which any lawyer could join. In 1989, a group of lawyers decided that there was a need for a legal center which would focus on political cases. HHB, the Peoples’ Lawyers Office, was established. It was, from the beginning, a small group with revolutionary ideology. Fuat Erdogan was one of the leaders of this group. He had been a student activist, and had been arrested and detained. Later he became a lawyer and defended the next generation of student activists. He was named as a terrorist and charged by the police. While he was awaiting a decision on his appeal, he was assassinated while drinking coffee with friends at a well known café in Besiktas, a working class area. He was killed by one of the policemen who was charged with human rights abuses in a case brought by lawyer Erdogan. The policeman was not convicted of the crime, but he was seen and recognized by the friends of Erdogan.

    GB: I have read about a big case now, involving many lawyers who were arrested recently and charged with supporting the PKK. Can you say something about that?

    PL: At the present time there are about 80 lawyers in prison, under various charges relating to their human rights defending, including those charged with supporting the PKK. The specific case you are referring to involves about 30 lawyers, 9 of whom are our HHB comrades. They have been in prison for more than 6 months, and only recently the government announced they will be tried, the first trial is supposed to begin in December.

    GB: Let me ask you some specific questions about the HHB. How many branches are there?

    PL: Just two at the present time, the other being in Ankara, the capital.

    GB: Is the HHB associated in any way with the Progressive Lawyers Association?

    PL: Yes, we are also members of the PLA.

    GB: Are you affiliated with any political party?

    PL: No. Not directly. That would be impossible! We have enough problems with the government as it is. Nine of twelve lawyers in HHB are now in prison for allegedly supporting the PKK.

    GB: How many other staff do you have?

    PL: Just one full time administrator and another who comes in part-time to assist with the filing and other work in the office.

    GB: Do you use any paralegals?

    PL: No. We have used student volunteers, some are law students. They help out with various tasks, sometimes research. Another activity is when we hold our conferences and symposia, they can help with the administrative side of it.

    GB: Do you have connections with community groups?

    PL: Yes, but not direct or organic. They know we are here for them if needed and they know we are committed to obtaining justice, so they bring cases to us.

    GB: And is that the same kind of relationship you have withr NGOs and other civil society organisations?

    PL: The relation is similar to the community groups.

    GB: So is that how you get your clients?

    PL: Yes a lot of them; but individuals can approach us. We take cases of both kinds, individuals and groups.

    GB: Interestingly, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in the Philippines will only handle cases brought to them by a group. Of course if they are approached by an individual they will see to it that the person gets a progressive lawyer who can handle the case with them. I say “with” them as they are very much concerned to break down the hierarchal relations which exist in the traditional practice of law.

    PL: They seem to have a good way of working in their particular circumstances.

    GB: You have a great setup here. How did you get the money to buy this house?

    PL: It did not cost that much for it is a cheaper area well out from the main city. Second, we did a lot of fund-raising. There were a number of events, and also friendly people were approached who could afford to make donations.

    GB: Is that still an activity you must engage in?

    PL: No, we are not involved in fund-raising now, at least not in that direct manner.

    GB: So how do you pay for the expenses involved here?

    PL: Mainly from the cases we handle. Some cases, not all, may result in financial gains to our clients. In such cases we get a part of their “ winnings”. Much of it comes from court orders against corporations-or even single employers-in labor cases.

    GB: Does that then pay for the lawyers who work, and live, here?

    PL: it is a bit more complex. We have three types of relationships with our lawyers. First, there are those who are “in”. That is they live and work here. Second, there are those who are “half in”. These lawyers do not live in the house, and may have a job in a law firm outside, but they work with the lawyers here, and may do some work around the house, joining in house activities. Generally they share our revolutionary views.

    GB: What is the third category?

    PL: There are lawyers who do not live here, and do not take part in our activities, but they do legal work for us. They may or may not believe in our revolutionary ideology, but they believe in the kind of work we are doing.

    GB: What level cases do you deal with? And do you, as some progressive legal groups in other countries, specialize in “test cases” for the purpose of establishing new legal interpretations, or perhaps trying to get the state to enact law reforms?

    PL: We take all kinds of cases, including appeals. Some cases might be considered test cases but we do not emphasize such cases in our practice. And we certainly do not turn down a case if it is an ordinary case without special importance.

    GB: That is interesting. A group in the Philippines, the Public Interest Law Center, specializes in test cases; when they are approached by someone with an ordinary problem, they will not take it, but they do refer them to a progressive advocate who can handle their case.

    PL: It is interesting to hear about the work, organization and policies of progressive lawyers in other countries. We know of the work of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in the Philippines and invited a Filipino lawyer to attend an international conference on human rights which we hosted just 10 days ago.

    GB: Can I ask what the attitude of the legal profession is towards the HHB.

    PL: It is, as you can imagine, very mixed. Some lawyers are all right. Others are quite hostile. The President of the Turkish Bar has indicated his respect for us; and judges are generally positive. Of course, they realize we are professionals and we work within the law, so there is a basic respect even though some may think we are really “outsiders” to the profession. Not surprisingly our work in political cases has come in for criticism.

    GB: And how do the state agencies react?

    PL: That is mixed also, again not surprisingly. The police are of course the worst. They see us as “the enemy.”

    GB: How about the social agencies of the state?

    PL: Well, they are not so good, although it is mixed. Some see us as a potential threat to their reputation and respect in the community, and also more importantly perhaps, within the bureaucracy. We sometimes embarrass them because of the way they have dealt with our clients.

    GB: How about the NGOs and civil society groups?

    PL: They are good. They generally have no problems with us.

    GB: How does the media portray the HHB?

    PL: Not well! They basically put us into the category of “terrorists.” For them, being an HHB lawyer is a crime for the state to deal with.

    GB: In Greece neo-fascists have been getting stronger and have organizations which are winning support from the people, in particular the Golden Dawn party, but other groups as well. In fact I visited a food distribution office which SYRIZA, the left wing party, has set up in an area where there are a lot of immigrants. Recently the front doors of the building were fire-bombed by one of these local groups. I could still see the charred wood on the doors. Are these kinds of groups operating in Turkey?

    PL: We don’t have fascist gangs, as we have a fascist state!

    GB: I take it the human rights abuses have not stopped during the current cease fire between the PKK and the government.

    PL: No, the peace process or perhaps we should say the cease fire has not really changed the situation. Most of the human rights violations by police and military have always been, and continue to be regardless of the cease fire against trade unionists and those who were said to be “supporters of the PKK”. Of course some were supporters of the demands of the PKK, but the media and state repressive forces used that label broadly. It was largely intended to quell any political movement against the neo-liberal policies of the state.

    GB: Can you give me some examples of the kinds of work which HHB has done which have been important.

    PL: One important HHB intervention was on the part of a group of workers who took control of a factory which the company wanted to shut down because they said it was unprofitable. It made quality clothing. HHB worked with them, supporting and advising them on issues they came up against while self-managing their workplace.
    A second area of HHB achievement has been exposing to the public the state terror, even murders, by military and police, particularly when the victims were in detention.
    Third has to do with incidents of extra judicial killings and disappearances which we have exposed and pressured the government to deal with.

    GB: Could you say something briefly about the provision of legal aid in Turkey?

    PL: There is a legal aid scheme here. It is, as with most legal aid programs, under-resourced. Lawyers who wish to be involved must obtain a certificate and then are placed in a pool of such lawyers. The Bar has responsibility for this part of the scheme. When someone is arrested and qualifies for legal aid, and the charges are serious enough to allow legal aid, the police will call one of the lawyers in the pool. Although most people who are detained by the police for criminal offenses do get legal representation, it is not always very good quality as there is seldom adequate time to prepare for the defence of the alleged perpetrator. From the lawyer’s view it is almost pro bono as the fee is very small.

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    The struggle for justice continues. It takes many forms. One form is the use of law. People’s lawyers around the world are in the forefront of the struggle. Each group of people’s lawyers has its own approach. Let us learn from each other’s knowledge and experience. And let us take the initiative in helping to develop people’s lawyers and people’s way of doing law through our practice and our example. One example is the HBB of Istanbul. Others here, I hope, will share their “model” with us, and later in writing, perhaps using our journal, Dissent, as the platform.

    Bourgeois law continues to remain hegemonic, and we must continue to expand our counter-hegemonic work. Here, I suppose, is where the academic people’s lawyers must lift their game. There is a continuing need for progressive ideological work which, I suppose, is the major contribution academics can make to the struggle. If we wish to adopt a strategy of “legal counter-offensive” then I would suggest we add a further part to the three which Neri Colmenares suggested: developing and disseminating counter-hegemonic ideas about law.

    If we want to do something direct and constructive on the ideological front, then we should put appropriate materials into the hands of law students, lawyers, academics and others in the community. Those materials would be used to fight against traditional bourgeois legal thought, institutions, education and practice. In passing I note that some outstanding ideological material, in both quality and quantity, has been produced by our Belgian practicing lawyer comrades in the Progress Law Network; and I also congratulate some of our Brazilian comrades for the excellent books and journals which they have produced from a progressive perspective. I was also impressed when I was in Mexico City two years ago, as there are some excellent initiatives there such as a student edited progressive law journal, and student organized radio broadcasts with a progressive agenda which not only cover Mexico, but also are broadcast to Mexicans living in the USA. Again, these are the kinds of initiatives we need to support, develop more of, and make known to others through the IAPL and Dissent.


    That IAPL consider the feasibility of undertaking a project of progressive education for lawyers, law students and others (TBD). This could include a number of initiatives both joint and several (to use lawyer language).

    One suggestion made by a comrade in Mexico during a session of the People’s Permanent Tribunal was to compile a bibliography of important progressive articles and books in each of our countries. I would suggest we consider that idea and co-ordinate with him; I also suggest the publication of a “primer”, which could be either (or both) a succinct discussion of law from a progressive or people’s perspective, or an edited collection of articles or chapters specially written. 2

    1 The three parts of his strategy were 1) court room battles and related people’s lawyers’ work; 2) legislative struggles by representatives of the people in order to win pro-people reforms, not least to provide space in which speech and action could be used to challenge oppression and exploitation; 3) action by the masses to bring pressure from the streets on courts, legislatures and wherever decisions were taken affecting the struggle for justice. See his speech at the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, Manila, Philippines, July, 2013.

    2 There are a number in the English language e.g. David Kairys, ed., The Politics of Law: a Progressive Critique (3rd ed. 1998); P. Beirne and R. Quinney, eds., Marxism and Law (1982); H. Collins, Marxism and Law (1982); Critique of Law Collective, Critique of Law: a Marxist Analysis (1978).

    More Gill H. Boehringer writings with Shortcut Links

    Last edited by Epsilon=One; 04-19-2018, 06:48 AM.