Attacks on lawyers

Gill Boehringer
International

Attacks on lawyers are increasing around the world, and represent a significant threat to the rule of law and democracy. They include extra judicial killings, disappearances, political imprisonments and torture, revocation of licences to practice among many forms of interference with a lawyer’s professional duty. They are usually aimed at human rights lawyers and legal critics of government policies.

Australia has not been immune, with a Melbourne lawyer slain a few years ago and a judge some years earlier. There we have also seen unprecedented attacks by the media and political figures on the judges who decided that Brexit must be authorised by Parliament.

The International Association of People’s Lawyers’ list of countries where there have been attacks on lawyers has grown to 115, about 20 per cent in Africa. Recently, human rights lawyers were assassinated in Kenya and Nigeria. In October 2016, at Nairobi, Kenya, the Pan African Lawyers Union Conference devoted a session to the problem.

Elsewhere, lawyers also live a very dangerous existence. The killing continues in the Philippines where three judges, a prosecutor and several lawyers were killed in the past year, putting the number up to 130 since 1999. In Pakistan 72 were killed by a bomb attack while in Egypt the government has sustained its campaign against human rights lawyers, largely by falsely charging and imprisoning them for substantial periods. A coup attempt in Turkey recently saw the government sack or imprison thousands of judges and lawyers. Many were Kurdish, at the Bar in Diyarbakir where its President was assassinated in 2015. In Colombia (long one of the most dangerous countries for lawyers along with Iraq and Syria), a leading human rights lawyer spoke for many when discussing peace negotiations: ‘Our society still needs to demonstrate that human rights defenders can take action without threat’.

In China the entire human rights lawyer community is under sustained attack. All have been sanctioned with a wide range of punishments, including prison, torture and loss of licence to practice. At a meeting in Brussels in November, representatives of European legal professional societies and lawyer activist groups met to plan activities for the 7th annual Day of the Endangered Lawyer, 24 January 2017 which focuses on China. In Australia, the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights is organising events for the day. Hopefully the professional societies will join their European colleagues and those in other countries to give support to the brave Chinese lawyers.

GILL BOEHRINGER is a former Head of Macquarie University Law School, and a member of the Monitoring Committee on Attacks Against Lawyers of the International Association of People’s Lawyers.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 290
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