Why is it so quiet? When will the shelling start? These were two questions the daughter of a Syrian lawyer asked on arriving in New Zealand. Mouhannad Taha had decided to leave behind the horrors he faced in his home country, where one friend and colleague he knew was kidnapped leaving court and another was shot. Law Society Otago branch manager Debbie Ericsson reports.
Dunedin-based Mouhannad Taha was admitted by Justice Dunningham in the Invercargill High Court on 29 February. In 2012 Mr Taha and his family relocated to Dunedin from Damascus, Syria. Mr Taha’s brother, a neurosurgeon, and mother were already in Dunedin at that time.
Graduating in 1995, Mr Taha started working in his father’s law firm in Damascus as a lawyer under training. The standard process in Syria is that newly admitted lawyers spend two years as lawyers under training.
To become a senior lawyer practitioners have to submit a research thesis and go before a panel of judges and executive members to be assessed. Questioning of the panel can be on any area of law.
Following the death of his father in 1996, Mr Taha took on the role of managing his father’s firm under the supervision of a senior lawyer and then became a senior lawyer himself in 1999, at which time the firm was transferred into his name.
The firm was a general practice firm meeting all of the legal needs of clients. He was also involved with international cases in the United Arab Emirates, Jordon, Lebanon, Italy and France. Although he has practised in all areas of law, including a large litigation practice, he is particularly interested in commercial and property law and had been developing this area of his practice before leaving Syria.
Mr Taha reports that the current Syrian crisis started with peaceful demonstrations against the government.
The government response was to fire live rounds on the demonstrators, including from tanks and helicopters.
The position of lawyers and the judiciary became precarious. The government has been in control of the Bar Association (The Syrian equivalent to the Law Society) since 1980 and lawyers were required to show that they supported the regime, being regularly subjected to questioning. If there was any suspicion that a lawyer was not supportive of the regime, then they could be either struck off or subjected to questionable disciplinary action by the Bar Association.
The lawyer and their families would also be targeted by the regime. This could mean being taken in for questioning and tortured, being arrested, kidnapped and disappearing or being shot in the street.
One friend and colleague was kidnapped leaving court. Another was shot on his way home. Yet another colleague was shot in his office just 200 metres from Mr Taha’s office not long after he left the country.
Travelling through the streets is dangerous enough and with lawyers needing to travel to and from the many different courts in Damascus there was plenty of opportunity for the regime. Mr Taha carried a gun with him at all times while travelling.
Of course lawyers were not the only ones targeted and it was not uncommon for people to not return home at the end of the day. Mr Taha’s cousin, her husband and their twin daughters were among those kidnapped and murdered.
There were also the practical difficulties of practising in the midst of a civil war – clients disappeared and documents were destroyed in the shelling. In Syria scanned copies of documents have no legal value, legal rights being destroyed with the original documentation. Mr Taha’s office, located in the centre of Damascus, was damaged twice by explosions.
Despite the horrors of the situation in Syria, Mr Taha describes the decision to leave as very difficult. He advised emigration officers at the airport that he and his family were travelling to New Zealand to visit family and study. He only told a few close relatives and his colleagues in his office of his plan to leave.
On arriving in Christchurch his daughter asked why it was so quiet and when the shelling would start.
When Mr Taha came to New Zealand he had poor English. He studied at the language centre at the University of Otago for six months. He then made an application to the Council of Legal Education for equivalency.
Due to the difficulties of getting documentation from Syria this took eight months to process. During this time Mr Taha studied politics at Otago University. He then completed the six law papers required by the Council of Legal Education at Otago University.
Mr Taha was able to complete his studies with the assistance of his brother, who not only provided funding for his studies but also welcomed Mr Taha’s family into his home, making a total of 17 people under one roof for a period of two years.
The process of admission in New Zealand was complicated by the inability to obtain the usual documentation required by foreign lawyers applying to the New Zealand Law Society for a Certificate of Character.
Mr Taha says that he is “honoured and privileged” to be accepted as a lawyer in New Zealand. When he left Syria he thought that he would return following the end of the conflict.
He and his family were granted permanent residency in January 2015, the process with some extra study allowing him to become familiar with immigration law. He and his family now consider New Zealand home and he is looking forward to once again working as a lawyer.