International lawyers coalition condemns erosion of protection for legal advocates in letter to UN rights expert
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International lawyers coalition condemns erosion of protection for legal advocates in letter to UN rights expert

JURIST EXCLUSIVE – A coalition of international legal advocates sent a joint letter Saturday to Professor Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, condemning the growing trend of government officials intimidating and endangering the legal representatives of politically controversial clients. They also called for greater protections to be granted to advocates, the clients they represent, and for the UN to address the diminishing safety of legal advocates worldwide.

The UK based advocacy organization CAGE submitted the joint letter on behalf of 45 signatories. The list of signatories comprises numerous well-known legal professionals including Stanley Cohen, Aamer Anwar, Michael Finucane, Fahad Ansari, David Hugh Southey, David Gottlieb, and Gareth Pierce. The letter cites many examples of these deteriorating protections for human rights advocates and NGOs that represent individuals accused of politically motivated violence. The group also asserts that these advocates are “routinely harassed and vilified by the press, threatened by the public, and intimidated, incarcerated, and assassinated by the state and its agents.” Despite suffering from systemic abuse, the group claims that these advocates have no legal recourse because the governments themselves are often complicit in the abuse.

While many autocratic regimes are well-known for their persecution of human rights advocates and legal representatives, the group underscores that despite chronic underreporting on the subject, there is a growing prevalence of these state abuses in “developed” nations. Solicitor Fahad Ansari elaborated on this point by saying that “lawyers in many parts of the developed world fare much better than their counterparts in the global South” when advocates “hail from minority communities and share the religion and/or ethnicity of their clients, the animosity towards the client is projected by extension to their lawyer.” The letter also provides many prominent examples of such politically motivated animus by government officials and the sometimes deadly repercussions this normalization of degrading legal representatives can have for the advocates themselves.

The most recent incident highlighted is the controversy caused by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s criticism of immigration lawyers for representing migrants and their condemnation of the government’s plans to remove asylum seekers. Patel expressed her disapproval of these lawyers by decrying them as “activists,” “do-gooders,” and “lefty lawyers” before equating them to human traffickers. The group contends that Patel’s rhetoric led to a subsequent attack on the well-known UK immigration law firm Duncan Lewis Solicitors. Just days after Patel’s comments, Cavan Medlock allegedly visited the firm armed with a large knife and threatened to kill a staff member. The prosecution in his case alleges that Cavan blamed the firm for preventing the removal of asylees from the UK. They also claim he planned to hold members of the staff hostage and display white supremacy symbols to inspire similar attacks.

The group also emphasized the deep roots of this issue, dating back to at least the 1989 assassination of Irish criminal defense lawyer Patrick Finucane. Finucane was shot 14 times by two masked men while eating a Sunday meal with his wife, who was also wounded in the attack, and their three children. The group alleges that hostile comments made by members of the UK government, including the then Under Secretary of State for the Home Department Douglas Hogg, led directly to the murder of Finucane. In 2004 Ken Barret, a member of the Ulster Defence Association and an informant for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, confessed to the shooting before ultimately pleading guilty to the murder. Despite a drawn-out investigation into the ongoing allegations of collusion with the British government in Finucane’s murderer, the British government formally concluded all public inquiries into the incident on November 30, 2020.

In a statement to JURIST, one of Patrick Finucane’s sons, Michael Finucane, who is also a signatory to the letter, had this to say:

Certain States and the ruling figures, usually politicians, objectify people as “undesirable” for a variety of reasons. The label of “terrorist,” for example, is often thrown around in order to justify violations of human rights in a way that is contrary to the rule of law.

In extreme cases, the lawyers, and often their clients, have been threatened or killed for their actions. This technique of conflating the issue or client with the lawyer is a deliberate ploy by politicians and governments who will flout the rule of law in order to achieve their aims. It must always be highlighted and challenged whenever it happens because connecting the lawyer with their client should never, ever happen.

Michael also added that he hopes the letter will call attention to “the work of human rights defenders” and the reality that they are often targeted in an attempt to “intimidate and discourage others.” Finally, he concluded by saying that “if the law is respected and followed, then we have the best chance of ensuring that these types of disparagements and attacks on lawyers will, eventually, become a thing of the past.”

Also included in the letter is US civil rights attorney Stanley Cohen’s experience of being “maligned in the media, subjected to censure by state officials and finally prosecuted” allegedly politically motivated charges. Cohen is best known for representing high profile individuals accused of terrorism and his work with international advocacy organizations. In a recent interview with JURIST, Cohen said:

The State promotes and benefits from an adversarial process and system that permits enough friction to [legitimize] it but not so much as to expose or fundamentally alter its stranglehold on acceptable, majoritarian voices and values.

The criminal justice and judicial systems exist to promote and maintain the status quo ante. Increasingly that is comprised by an open and public embrace of those in power. Clients who challenge that structure are quickly singled out and targeted as threats. Advocates who confront it are seen as no less dangerous.

He went on to add that he hopes the petition will “ignite a movement” beyond the courtroom and serve to remind activists “who challenge the State” everywhere that “they are not alone.”

CAGE itself has also been the target of attack by government officials in recent years. NGO members cite their own experience of having been allegedly maligned by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who accused CAGE members of “promoting problematic or extreme views” in a 2019 report. Similarly, David Cameron labeled CAGE an “extremist” organization during a counterterrorism speech in 2015. The NGO also recounts having its licence to employ foreign nationals revoked and its bank accounts frozen in 2014 by Barclays Bank and Co-Op Bank as part of an attempt to undermine the organization’s mission. The banks offered little explanation for these decisions other than noting “risk assessment” as the reason for closing the accounts. Further compounding the difficulties, the banks offered no legal avenues for CAGE to challenge the account closures. CAGE’s later attempts to open accounts have either been blocked or the accounts have been closed shortly after they were opened.

They are not alone in this persecution as last year, the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a leading anti-discrimination group, was ordered to shut down by the French government. Despite widespread international outcry at the decision and the reality that the government was unable to establish any evidence of wrongdoing, CIFF was ultimately forced to close its doors. The letter also recognizes the work done by several advocacy groups, including CAIR and the ACLU in the US. Both organizations have extensively documented increases in hostility towards minority populations throughout the US. They have also been targeted by the US government for representing these “undesirable” clients and for challenging laws that infringe on well established international human rights.

Finally, the tragic murder of Shahid Azimi in India and the detention of senior advocate Mian Abdul Qayoom in Kashmir were also touted as examples of the alarming increase in the persecution of human rights lawyers internationally. In 2010, Indian defense lawyer Shahid Azmi was murdered by four attackers after years of being targeted by state authorities for his work defending individuals accused of terrorism. Despite 10 years having passed since his death, his murder trial has ground to a halt, with only a single witness having been deposed in the last two years since its start. Similarly, Mian Abdul Qayoom, the president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, was detained by state officials for challenging an act that allows a suspect to remain in detention for two years without trial. Despite his advanced age and ongoing health concerns, the political motivations for his imprisonment proved sufficient to hold him under the very act his work sought to challenge.

CAGE and the signatories hope that emphasizing the dangers posed by human rights advocacy work will lead to greater legal protections for advocates worldwide. This is especially true for lawyers representing clients who have been branded enemies of the state. Fahad Ansari illustrated this point by saying:

If as a society, we allow the State and media to harass, defame, imprison, and even kill lawyers and human rights defenders for holding it to account, then we are all complicit in the creation of a totalitarian system where the rule of law will cease to exist.

We hope that the UN Special Rapporteur will intervene to ensure that the safety of lawyers and human rights defenders is guaranteed so that all individuals, regardless of the crimes for which they are accused, are able to access effective legal representation.

The advocates have requested a meeting with Lawlor to discuss further the concerns raised in their letter. Lawlor and the OHCHR have so far declined to comment on the letter.

The full text is included below.

Professor Mary Lawlor

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Dear Professor Lawlor,

The right to counsel is one of the basic constituent elements of the right to a fair trial as enshrined in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite this, legal representatives around the world, particularly those representing individuals accused of politically motivated violence, are routinely harassed and vilified by the press, threatened by the public, and intimidated, incarcerated, and assassinated by the state and its agents.

Whilst much publicity is given to the policies of autocratic regimes, scant mention is made of the pernicious actions of so-called democratic states in the developed world.

For example, last year, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, openly supported by the British Prime Minister and sections of the media, repeatedly criticised human rights lawyers challenging the government’s decisions to remove asylum seekers. She labelled them ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘lefty lawyers’ and equated them with human traffickers.

Following an attack on a well-known human rights law firm in the wake of Patel’s comments, we are increasingly concerned about the safety of civil liberties lawyers being compromised by such inciteful rhetoric.

We are conscious of the unduly alarmist charge that surfaces when such points are made, so we highlight only one example from recent history in the UK context to illustrate how political attacks can lead to tragic consequences. The shocking assassination of Irish criminal defence lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989 remains a vivid memory for many of us, particularly as his murder followed similarly hostile comments from the then Home Office minister who claimed that a number of lawyers in Northern Ireland were unduly sympathetic with the cause of the IRA.

More recently, Indian defence lawyer Shahid Azmi, who acquired a reputation for representing individuals facing allegations of terrorism, was murdered in his office following a lengthy campaign of intimidation.

In Kashmir, the ongoing detention of Mian Abdul Qayoom, president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, despite being in his 70s, having suffered a heart attack and now having to use a wheelchair, is likely politically motivated. He is being detained under the very act his work was dedicated to challenging, an act that allows a person to be detained for two years without trial.

In the US, civil rights attorneys such as Lynne Stewart and Stanley Cohen (a signatory to this letter) were maligned in the media, subjected to censure by state officials and finally prosecuted under what appeared to be politically motivated charges. The manner in which they were singled out for such treatment was clearly linked to the cases they took on, and the nature of the offences of which their clients were accused.

Additionally, we are seeing banning orders extended to lawyers, where states have refused to allow them to enter to consult with clients or to lecture, Israel being among the most active in this.

It is not just members of the legal profession who have been the subject of state intimidation and censure. Organisations that challenge the infrastructure of authoritarian laws, such as CAGE in the UK, CCIF in France and CAIR in the USA have been vilified by state institutions and politicians because they seek to represent those deemed ‘undesirable’, and to hold governments to account for discriminatory laws and violations of the rule of law.

As examples, in recent years CAGE has been attacked by former Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, had its bank accounts closed, its license to employ foreign nationals revoked, and its directors harassed and intimidated.

Last year, the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) was shut down by the government despite no evidence of wrongdoing being established by authorities. In the US, the CAIR and the ACLU have documented the rise in governmental hostility towards Muslims there.

We are conscious that the sole reason that lawyers and human rights defenders are targeted in this way is because of state animosity towards the clients they represent. The intention behind the campaigns of harassment is no doubt to deter legal representation for such clients, thereby removing the final layer of protection available to them from the excesses of the state.

Lawyers defending basic rights must be protected irrespective of where they practice. It is essential that they are enabled to execute their duties free from intimidation so they can fulfil their clients’ rights to a fair trial, as well as challenge unjust laws, thereby facilitating a robust society where the courtroom is safe from injustice.

Yours sincerely,

  1. Michael Finucane, Solicitor and Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission, Ireland.
  2. Aamer Anwar, Solicitor, Aamer Anwar & Co Solicitors & Notaries, Scotland.
  3. Stanley L. Cohen, Attorney, Stanley Cohen and Associates, USA
  4. Fahad Ansari, Consultant, Director, Riverway Law, UK
  5. Attiq Malik, Solicitor, Liberty Law Solicitors, UK
  6. Habeel Iqbal, Lawyer, Kashmir
  7. Gareth Pierce, Birnberg and Pierce Solicitors, UK
  8. David Hugh Southey, Q.C., Matrix Chambers, UK
  9. Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College; Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, UK
  10. David Gottlieb, Junior practitioner and trial lawyer, UK
  11. Nadia Akhtar, Solicitor, Muslim Lawyers Action Group, UK
  12. Feroze Boda, Advocate, Muslim Lawyers Asscoiation, South Africa
  13. Zoe Nicola, Associate Solicitor, GSG Law, UK
  14. Nadeem Mahomed, Attorney, MLA, South Africa
  15. Afzal Mosam SC, Senior Counsel, Maisels Chambers, South Africa
  16. Ghulam Humayun, Solicitor, LP Evans, UK
  17. Faysal Yaqoob, Solicitor, UK
  18. Ben Cartwright, Solicitor. Duncan Lewis Solicitors, UK
  19. Haley Duschinski, Associate Professor, Center for Law, Justice & Culture, Ohio University, USA
  20. Mohammed Fiaz, Partner, West Midlands Solicitors, UK
  21. Adeela Firdous, Law and Advocacy Officer, Center for Equity Studies, Kashmir
  22. Mirza Saaib Bég, Student, Blavatnik school of Government, University of Oxford, UK
  23. Kenneth J. Montgomery, Federal and State Criminal Defense Attorney and Fordham Law School Professor, Law Office of Kenneth J. Montgomery, USA
  24. Glenn Kato, Attorney, Katon Law, USA
  25. Alan Mills, Attorney, Uptown People’s Law Center, USA
  26. James D. Diamond, Dean of Academic Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Law, National Tribal Trial College and Roger Williams University, USA
  27. Tamar Birckhead, Attorney, USA
  28. Abdul Basit Wani, Lawyer, Kashmir<
  29. Ghazi Abbas, Solicitor, Knightsbridge Solicitors, UK
  30. Salman Khan, Human Rights Activist, Kashmir Global Movement and Kashmir Centre for African Union, South Africa
  31. Gavin Booth, Lawyer, Phoenix Law, Ireland
  32. Nabeela Moola, Attorney, N Moola Incorporated, South Africa
  33. Yousha Tayob, Attorney, South Africa
  34. Bart Ford, Advocate, South African Bar Association, South Africa
  35. Nobahle Raji, Barrister, Johannesburg Bar, South Africa
  36. Racquel Nxumalo, Advocate, Johannesburg Society of Advocates, South Africa
  37. Muhammad Saloojee, Attorney, Tax Lexicon, South Africa
  38. Emraan Vawdam, Advocate, National Bar Council of South Africa, South Africa
  39. Selvan Naidoo, Attorney, South Africa
  40. Feisal Saint, Advocate, South Africa
  41. Tasneem Moosa, Attorney, Tasneem Moosa Inc, South Africa
  42. Mohammed Sali, Attorney, Muslim Lawyers Association, South Africa
  43. Azril Mohd Amin, Advocate & Solicitor, Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (CENTHRA), Malaysia
  44. Jay Leiderman, Attorney, Jay Leiderman Law, USA
  45. Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law, Duncan Lewis (UK)
  46. Maryam Jamshidi, Professor, University of Florida, Levin College of Law (USA)
  47. Gideon Orion Oliver, Attorney (USA)