International Day of the Endangered Lawyer: Voices from Afghanistan, Myanmar Features
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International Day of the Endangered Lawyer: Voices from Afghanistan, Myanmar

January 24 marks the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer—an occasion to reflect on lawyers worldwide who have been subjected to harassment, silencing, pressure, threats, persecution, torture, murder and disappearance.

In theory, the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers aim to safeguard members of the profession, but in practice, far too many attorneys and legal academics are under siege, a fact that may be attributable to shifting global political leanings. “Globally, rising populism and increasing authoritarianism are leading to shrinking space for civil society and lower respect for rule of law. When human rights conditions worsen, the role of lawyers is even more important because they represent the last hope to advance the rule of law, fair trial rights, and basic human rights principles,” according to a 2021 American Bar Association report.

This is a cause of particular importance to JURIST, whose legal correspondents publishing local dispatches face enormous risks in the shadow of authoritarian governments.

“Over the past year [at JURIST] as we’ve expanded around the world, we’ve had the privilege and challenge of working with multiple law students and lawyers on the ground in several conflict zones. It’s been inspiring to see them stand up for the rule of law while reporting for us, but in the process they’ve been threatened, chased, arrested, rifle-butted and shot at, just for being lawyers, law students, and rights advocates. If the rule of law is to prevail, lawyers need protection from harassment and arbitrary persecution for doing their jobs and exercising their responsibility to help others,” said JURIST Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Bernard Hibbitts.

Each year, the organization that established the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer highlights the plights of lawyers in a different country or region, having opted this year to focus on Colombia. To honor the occasion and help raise awareness of threats against lawyers in our own way, JURIST has collected quotes from beleaguered lawyers facing harassment and violence in Afghanistan and Myanmar—two jurisdictions where JURIST staffers and their colleagues in the profession are under particularly imminent threat.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban stormed the country’s independent bar association, forcibly seized control of licensing responsibilities, and prohibited female judges and lawyers from practicing. Still, pioneering lawyers continue to work both within the country and from abroad to help protect their embattled colleagues, and to highlight worrying shifts in Afghan legal scholarship and practice.

A corporate attorney from Kabul on fears the Taliban will expand its crackdown against the country’s lawyers: “Lawyers have the courage to speak up. Lawyers are educated. Lawyers are the people that they can object to whatever dark policies that [the Taliban] would like to implement. [A violent crackdown] is going to start very soon. It’s going to be really, really terrible, even compared to what we have seen so far.”

A female law student on the abrupt curtailment of her academic pursuits after the Taliban’s rise: “After the Taliban took power, the closure of the universities ground all of my academic pursuits to a halt. The administrators I’ve communicated with have said that they were required to separate the male and female students, and that they were struggling to come up with a plan for that. Various administrators and sources have cited money, logistics and politics as the reasons behind the closures of the universities.”

A male law student on the Taliban’s aversion to modern Afghan legal academia: “Now that an extremist group has sole discretion [over] the affairs of the country … they are trying to kill Law as a discipline and will only teach [a form of Sharia Law] they can understand. … Now, lawyers and law students have no incentive to work and to learn as there are no hopes of them being included in an extremist system that would see the law-educated students and academics as Westernized, and even as infidels.” 

In Myanmar, after overthrowing the democratically appointed government, the country’s post-Coup military leadership, the Tatmadaw, targeted lawyers and law students, at times with fatal consequences. Still, law students and lawyers continue their fight to revive the budding democratic values they feel the coup crushed.

A law student on the fear that engulfed her community after the coup: “We can’t even sleep at night because police and military forces have been arresting innocent people at night and releasing the prisoners to create chaos at night. They seem to be trying to enact human rights violations into law. But we never surrender, and we never back down. We are not deterred by the bloodshed we have witnessed; we remain enthusiastic in our fight for the downfall of this dictatorship.”

A JURIST staffer on why she chose to protest against the Tatmadaw despite the extreme risks: “I feel compelled to let the world know what’s happening in Myanmar. I don’t want us to lose any more lives. We desperately want democracy. We want to sleep soundly at night, knowing we’ll wake up safe in the morning. We just want everything to calm down so we can start building our dreams again,” one staffer said.

A law student on the senseless loss of his friend and peer, Myo Hein Kyaw, who was shot and killed by Tatmadaw officers: “The military killed a young man who would have made an impact on Myanmar’s justice system. He would have fought tirelessly to correct the injustices in our legal system. He was the sort of person who always thought of his country first. His killing was a shameful act, and our country is worse off for it.”

Underlying even the grimmest reports is hope—the thread that binds legal academics and professionals fighting for fundamental freedoms against the most merciless dictatorships. As explained by a JURIST correspondent in Myanmar when asked what motivates her to continue fighting the Tatmadaw: “I hope to gain genuine democracy for our country as soon as possible. We have never wanted to live under a dictatorship. We want our leaders – those who were democratically elected during the latest elections – to take back control, and we want to see Myanmar flourish.”