[主页]->[独立中文笔会]->[滕彪文集]->[The most dangerous job in law]
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The most dangerous job in law

   By Abby Seiff

    On April 6, 2014, guards at Vietnam's remote Prison No. 5 escorted out a most unusual prisoner. He had been branded by the government as an enemy of the state and sentenced to seven years in prison.
    Human rights lawyers had a different view of the man, whom they and human rights advocates around the world saw as a prisoner of conscience. Within the prison, he had earned the begrudging respect of his guards, to the point that some of them politely called him "doctor of law," while others called him "hero" or even "head of state."
    On April 6, 2014, guards at Vietnam's remote Prison No. 5 escorted out a most unusual prisoner. He had been branded by the government as an enemy of the state and sentenced to seven years in prison.
    Human rights lawyers had a different view of the man, whom they and human rights advocates around the world saw as a prisoner of conscience. Within the prison, he had earned the begrudging respect of his guards, to the point that some of them politely called him "doctor of law," while others called him "hero" or even "head of state."
    For three years, Cu Huy Ha Vu had turned prison into yet another courtroom: winning better treatment for his fellow prisoners and assisting them in their legal struggles. Now, at last, he had won his own battle, though the victory came at no small price. When the guards escorted Vu out of the prison, they were ordered to take him directly to an airport. He was flown to the United States, whose diplomats had wangled an early release on medical grounds. It is unlikely he will ever set foot in Vietnam again.
    "They forced me to go directly from prison to the airport, and from the airport to fly directly to the U.S.," Vu says. "They didn't let me visit my home, visit my sons, visit all my relatives. That is a kind of crime."
    Exile may be wrenching, but it is far from the worst treatment Vu and his colleagues around the world have faced at the hands of antagonistic government authorities.
    Some 200 lawyers and other activists are imprisoned in Vietnam alone, which, despite recent efforts to introduce liberalized economic policies and develop more contacts with the West, still is ruled by a Communist Party that maintains strict controls on political expression and resists calls for greater recognition of human rights. Vu was arrested for spreading anti-Vietnam propaganda; other attorneys have faced spurious charges of sedition, tax evasion and conducting subversive activities.
   The persecution of human rights advocates is hardly unique to Vietnam. On May 7, longtime Pakistani human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot to death in his office. Rehman had received death threats in open court on April 9 while rep-resenting a defendant charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Human rights groups have campaigned against those laws, which carry a potential death penalty and often are used to persecute religious minorities or to settle personal scores.
    In the Philippines, at least 23 human rights lawyers have been killed since 2001, according to Lawyers for Lawyers, a Dutch foundation that seeks to promote the proper functioning of the rule of law by working for the freedom and independence of the legal profession. In Turkey, dozens of lawyers were beaten and arrested in 2013 when they joined in demonstrations against certain government policies and crackdowns on free assembly. In Russia, numerous criminal defense lawyers who sought to prove wrongdoing by law enforcement officials have received death threats, and several of those lawyers have been killed.
    Indeed, few countries controlled by authoritarian regimes have not seen human rights lawyers being harassed, threatened, tortured and murdered.
    During just a few weeks toward the end of 2014, police in Zimbabwe assaulted a lawyer monitoring a protest demonstration; three lawyers in Saudi Arabia were sentenced to five years in prison after calling for judicial independence; an Iranian lawyer recently released from prison had her license suspended without cause; and a human rights lawyer in Azerbaijan suffering ill health had his pretrial detention extended another four months.
    Gail Davidson, founder of Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada, says that in the past year, attacks have been aimed at lawyers whose work threatens to do one or more of the following: (1) Expose serious government wrongdoing, including involvement in torture and extrajudicial killings; (2) interfere with government-approved commercial activities involving the use of land, including resource extraction and commercial development; (3) assert the rights of marginalized people to occupy and live on lands targeted for use by commercial actors; (4) promulgate information on international human rights; or (5) make public extralegal government crackdowns on freedom of expression, association and assembly.
    The attacks have included everything from illegal surveillance to trumped-up charges and "failure to provide protection to lawyers threatened with harm," Davidson says. The reasons for these attacks are evident, she adds. "As to the importance of lawyers, the Colombian lawyers have a saying: ‘Sin abogados, no hay justicia.' " There is no justice without lawyers.
    Persecution, harassment and physical attacks against human rights lawyers continue despite the efforts of advocacy groups and even the existence of international accords asserting the right of lawyers to go about their business free of improper government interference.
    Chief among these accords are the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (PDF), unanimously adopted in 1990 by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. Later that year, the principles were incorporated into a broader resolution on human rights that was adopted without a vote by the U.N. General Assembly. Although they are not legally binding, the principles underscore the vital role of lawyers and the obligation of governments to ensure that they are able to perform all of their professional functions.
    The principles state that all people are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to represent them in criminal proceedings. The principles also assert that governments "shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; (b) are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics."
    But in the real world, those principles often are ignored. China, Vietnam and Zimbabwe all were U.N. member states when the principles were "welcomed" (in U.N. jargon) by the General Assembly. So, too, were Bahrain, Cambodia, Colombia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Turkey and most of the dozens of other countries implicated each year in abuses against human rights lawyers.
    "By advising and representing the victims of human rights violations and their relatives in criminal cases against the alleged perpetrators, [lawyers] help to combat impunity," says Kingsley Abbott, an international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists.
    As a result, such lawyers become clear threats to governments that are characterized by impunity, corruption and political pressure. "Lawyers from all regions of the world face intimidation, interference, arrest and imprisonment or violence as a result of defending human rights," Abbott says. "The persecution of one or more lawyers through these means may, moreover, be used as a way to intimidate their peers."
   Beatrice outside the high court
   Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa in 2008 outside the Harare High Court in Zimbabwe, where she applied for the release of foreign journalists who were jailed for working without accreditation. AP Photo/Mujahid Safodien-Star

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