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The courage of lawyers saluted

11 February 2016 - By Geoff Adlam

Lawyers’ organisations around the world marked another Day of the Endangered Lawyer on 22 January. The purpose of the event is to call attention to threatened human rights lawyers around the world. The first such day was organised in 2010 and it has gained momentum since.

In a statement released to acknowledge the day, New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore expressed the Law Society’s support for lawyers around the world who risk harassment, persecution, and injury or death in their work.

Mr Moore said New Zealand was highly ranked for its adherence to the rule of law and institutions which uphold human rights.

“An important part of this is the ability to criticise aspects of the justice system, to advocate for change, and for lawyers to represent their clients without fear of arrest or violence. Sadly this is not so for members of the legal profession in some other parts of the world.”

He said lawyers in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Honduras, Egypt and the Philippines experienced persecution and imprisonment from the authorities in 2015 because they were defending human rights.

“The New Zealand Law Society applauds and salutes the courage of lawyers around the world who continue to represent people and to speak out in the face of oppression,” he said.

Lawyers continue to be harassed and persecuted in many countries around the world. Three of the worst places to be a lawyer are:

Honduras

Each year the Day of the Endangered Lawyer pays special attention to one designated country. In 2015 it was the Philippines and this year it is Honduras. At present more lawyers are murdered in Honduras than any other country in the world. The Inter American Human Rights Commission reports that between 2013 and March 2015, there were 45 violent acts against lawyers, resulting in the deaths of 34 lawyers and six other people who were present.

The problems stem from the inability of the Honduras government to respond to the extremely high levels of crime and violence in the country. Since 2010 the Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. The United States Department of State says transnational criminal organisations conduct drug trafficking and other criminal activity throughout the country.

Lawyers are targets when they defend people hunted by criminal gangs or when they prosecute the criminals. In 2014 at least 20 judges received death threats and three have been murdered in the last two years. The police force appears to be involved in criminal offending and is unable to offer any protection.

Saudi Arabia

In September 2015 Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, was elected Chair of the UN Human Rights Council panel that appoints independent experts.

However, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia is a good place to be a human rights lawyer. On 27 November 2015 Saudi lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair was awarded the 20th Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. The problem is that he was not in Geneva to receive the award. Instead, he is serving a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of charges such as “harming public order in the state and its officials”, “inflaming public opinion and disparaging and insulting judicial authority”, and “publicly slandering the judiciary, distorting the kingdom’s reputation, making international organisations hostile to the kingdom, and issuing unverified statements that harm the kingdom’s reputation and incite against it and alienate it”. Three other Saudi lawyers are serving 5-8 years in prison for using Twitter to say the Saudi justice system was “backwards”.

Among other members of the Saudi legal profession in jail are former judge Sheikh Suliaman al-Rashudi (sentenced to 15 years in December 2012 after giving a talk on the legality of peaceful protest in Shari’a law) and former law professor Abdulkareem al-Khoder (serving 10 years for offences such as “disobeying the ruler” and “harming the image of the state by disseminating false information to foreign groups”). The former wife of Mr al-Khair, Samar Badawi, was detained overnight, interrogated and harassed by police on 12 and 13 January 2016 about activity on the Twitter account of Mr al-Khair.

China

More than six months after the 9 July 2015 attack (“the 709 crackdown”) on the legal profession, Chinese lawyers are still missing, detained, held under residential surveillance or forbidden from leaving China. A joint statement by 115 worldwide organisations on 14 January 2016 noted that 14 lawyers and 22 human rights defenders are still being confined, with some having disappeared, and another 33 are banned from leaving the country. Bodies such as the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the International Bar Association continue to express deep concern at the treatment of the legal profession in China.

In mid-January 2016 the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders stated that human rights lawyer Shu Xiangxin had appeared before a criminal court on 8 January accused of defamation. He was sentenced to six months in prison and his lawyer’s licence was revoked. During the 30-minute trial Mr Shu’s defence lawyers were not allowed in court. He has been refused medical treatment and has been beaten and tortured by police while in custody.

Lawyers murdered in 2015

Sadly lawyers continued to be murdered in a number of countries during 2015 because of their work. Some of those killed are remembered below. In most of the cases the murderers have not been captured.

Indian lawyer Nabi Ahmed, 30, was shot dead in the Allahabad District Court premises on 11 March. Police Sub-Inspector Shailendra Pratap Singh has been charged with his murder, allegedly because of an argument over a court case.

Pakistani lawyer Samiullah Afridi was murdered in Peshawar on 17 March by a Taliban-connected group. A couple of months earlier he had announced that because of death threats he would no longer be defending his cousin, Dr Shakil Afridi, who was convicted of charges related to assisting the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden.

On 9 April lawyer Lorenzo Alberto Claris Appiani, 37, died after Claudio Giardiello opened fire with a pistol in Milan’s courthouse, methodically killing the lawyer, a co-defendant and a judge. Giardiello was on trial for fraudulent bankruptcy and Appiani was appearing as a witness against him. After police captured him Giardiello said: “I wanted to take revenge on those who ruined me”.

Francisco Palomo, 63, a Guatemalan lawyer representing former dictator Efrain Rios Montt against genocide charges, was shot dead in Guatemala City on 3 June while driving home. Two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside his car and shot him 12 times.

The body of lawyer Julio César Mejia Salgado was found near Chilpancingo, Mexico on 24 June with the bodies of three doctors. The four had been abducted while driving on a highway. Over 60 lawyers have disappeared or been murdered in the Mexican state of Durango alone since 2008. Some of the bodies have carried messages saying the lawyer should not have been defending certain clients.

From Besant Nagar in India, lawyer Kamesh Srinivasan, 34, was shot and killed by his client Eshwaran of Tondiarpet on 6 September allegedly because of an argument over the payment of fees.

The body of Malaysia’s deputy public prosecutor Anthony Kevin Morais, 55, was found stuffed in a concrete-filled drum near the Klang River in Selangor on 16 September. Six men have been charged with his murder, which has been strongly linked to his investigation of criminal offending.

Ramon Elesteria, 68, was shot dead on his way to his car after attending a court hearing in Bayawan City, Philippines, on 29 September. The killer fired more shots at Elesteria as he lay on the ground before leaving the scene.

Thair Elçi, 49, President of the Bar Association of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, was shot in the head on 28 November 2015 immediately after a press conference in which he called for an end to violence. He died on the spot. Elçi had been detained several times and received death threats after saying the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party should not be regarded as a terrorist organisation.

Lawyer Ejimofor Ozongwu was murdered in Okwojo, Nigeria on 23 December 2015. Police have arrested four people and a land dispute is suspected to be the cause. Aged in his 50s, he was Executive Secretary of the Movement for the Actualization of Adada State.

Last updated on the 11th February 2016