The Day of the Endangered Lawyer is approaching. Celebrated on Jan. 24 and now in its ninth year, the day draws attention to the plight of lawyers around the world who risk their own safety to fight for human rights and dignity.
At least in theory, lawyers everywhere are accorded certain fundamental rights. The Basic Principles on the Law of Lawyers, adopted by the UN in 1990, state various aspirational goals. Many are straightforward.
- Governments are to ensure that lawyers can perform their duties without harassment or interference, can freely consult with their clients, and shall not suffer or be threatened with prosecution or other sanctions for actions taken in the course of recognized professional duties (No. 16).
- Lawyers are not to be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes (No. 18).
- Lawyers are entitled to freedom of expression and can take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law and the protection of human rights, and can attend meetings without suffering professional restrictions as the result of lawful action or membership in a lawful organization (No. 23).
Unfortunately, the reality does not quite measure up to the lofty goals of the standards. The basic principles, in some places, are luxuries that have proven tricky or impossible to secure. In many areas of the world, lawyers practice at great personal risk.
Among the numerous chilling reports, a few recent examples stand out. The Lawyers for Lawyers website reports that on Nov. 6, 2018, lawyer Benjamin Ramos from the Philippines, who served as secretary-general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers for Negros Island, was killed in a drive-by shooting. It’s suspected that he was targeted because of his work as a human rights lawyer and peasant advocate.
It’s sobering and depressing to recognize that the practice of law, in many countries, is like a combat sport: risky and dangerous.
Lyudmila Aleksandrovna is another example. A human rights lawyer practicing in the Krasnodar region of Russia, her car was recently set on fire outside her home. This is thought to be related to her representation of a witness to the violent arrest of another lawyer, who was beaten by police while trying to provide legal assistance to people protesting against pension reform. Aleksandrovna earlier had her law license withdrawn following a criminal conviction for slander, resulting from her complaint to the authorities about raids by militia.
In Egypt, Mohamed Ramada — a lawyer who represents political detainees — was arrested in early December after attending proceedings pertaining to the renewal of a detention order against one of his clients. An article on the website of the International Commission of Jurists reports that his family and lawyers were not told of his whereabouts until he was brought before the prosecutor the day after his arrest. He was charged with possession of flyers opposing Egyptian President Sisi, and with possession of multiple yellow vests, a symbol of French protests. The sale of the vests was illegal in Egypt. He was described as one of many Egyptian lawyers targeted for carrying out professional functions or for being viewed as opposing the state authorities.
These few examples underscore the need for the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, to celebrate courageous lawyers and to support those who are oppressed.
Each year, a particular country is chosen for focus; this year, it is Turkey. According to the website of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights, Turkey routinely conducts political trials against lawyers. During its two-year state of emergency, almost 570 lawyers were arrested, 1,480 faced prosecution, and 79 were sentenced to long-term imprisonment.
Although the state of emergency has ended, the political trials continue. Indeed, the site notes that “[a]lmost every week, there is at least one trial against lawyers, especially in Istanbul,” and warns that “lawyers who are still free are practicing law under the risk of a sudden arrest.”
Activists are urged to organize protests on Jan. 24 outside Turkish embassies, consulates and courthouses.
It’s sobering and depressing to recognize that the practice of law, in many countries, is like a combat sport: risky and dangerous. It’s appropriate to take time at least once a year to feel grateful that law practice in our country, while uncertain and stressful, is generally not deadly. We don’t risk our personal safety and liberty in doing our work.
The Day of the Endangered Lawyer is a good time to remember and honor our brave colleagues around the world who fight selflessly and tirelessly to further human rights, justice and the rule of law.
Merle R. Hass is assistant general counsel to the Board of Bar Overseers in Boston.