The Guardian, 1/3/14
Alliance of Lawyers at Risk urgently seeks volunteers to provide unarmed protection for those under threat for their rights work
The death of Nelson Mandela was a reminder that it was as a lawyer that he first ran into serious trouble with the authorities in South Africa. Around the world, from Colombia to Nepal, from Mexico to Indonesia, there are still many lawyers under threat of prison or death as a direct result of their work.
It is three years now since the Alliance of Lawyers at Risk was launched in conjunction with Peace Brigades International (PBI), the organisation that sends volunteers around the world to provide unarmed protection for those under threat because of their human rights work.
The list of their members is a long one – Sir Henry Brooke, Peter Roth, Lord Woolf, Baroness Scotland, Phil Shiner, Dinah Rose, Nicholas Green, Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Mansfield, Lord Carlile, Sir Geoffrey Bindman to name but a few – but they are now urgently seeking new supporters and activists with legal skills for 2014.
“Lawyers in some countries are regularly subjected to threats to themselves or their families, are physically attacked and even abducted and forcibly ‘disappeared’ simply for doing their jobs,” says Susi Bascon of PBI UK. “In Colombia alone, as many as 25 lawyers may be killed each year.”
There are a variety of ways that lawyers in countries that don’t face such daily perils can help: sending fact-finding delegations to affected countries, assisting in the preparation of submissions to governments, and amicus curiae briefs, helping with the training of local lawyers, and providing financial support for PBI’s protection work.
One of the most recent interventions in Colombia was in the case of David Ravelo Crespo, a human rights campaigner jailed for 18 years for a murder of which he vigorously protests his innocence. In September, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) presented an amicus curiae report in relation to his conviction before the superior tribunal of Santander in Colombia. According to Kirsty Brimelow QC, president of the BHRC, irregularities in the case not only affect Ravelo, but have an impact on the exercise of due process in Colombia.
Of lawyers in Colombia, Brimelow says: “I’m lucky that I can work in London with minimal fear of being shot for my work. It’s a real threat in Colombia and lawyers and judges are frequently gunned down. One aspect of our work is that we are able to act as a bridge between government and victims and support dialogue. Colombia has great laws and a well-drafted constitution. However, the system is drowning in the sheer volume of cases – there is a backlog of two million – and the gap between court rulings and implementation is wide.” Brimelow, who has met President Juan Manuel Santos on two occasions, added that the Colombian government had “flung doors open to international human rights lawyers”.
There are grave dangers, too, in Nepal. Mandira Sharma is the chairperson and co-founder of Advocacy Forum (AF), Nepal’s leading organisation of human rights lawyers which was formed to address cases of rights violations for victims of the civil war which only ended in 2006 and in which 16,000 people died. As many of its cases are against senior security officials, its lawyers routinely face threats and obstruction to their work.
In January, UK authorities arrested Colonel Kumar Lama of the Nepalese army and charged him with two counts of torture under universal jurisdiction law. He is accused of committing crimes during the civil war. Nepal has accused Britain of breaching its sovereignty by carrying out the arrest and the case will be back in court this month. Because of their work relating to the case, Mandira and her colleagues were described as “traitors” in the media in Nepal and there are concerns for her safety.
Another case in which the Alliance and PBI have been involved is that of the disrupted prosecution for genocide of the former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Rios Montt, who was found guilty by a domestic court in May of ordering the massacre of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil people during the country’s civil war in the early 1980s.
The conviction was overturned within a few days. Edgar Pérez, the lead Guatemalan prosecutor, told the Guardian earlier this year: “We hope to get a decision handed down [from the Inter-American Commission] that will put pressure on the national courts so that we can get back to the [80-year] sentence.”
PBI members accompanied Pérez to court hearings and meetings with government officials. “I know I’m being followed and that my phone is being intercepted but if I’m accompanied there’s a permanent reminder that the international community is watching.”
More help for such cases is urgently needed, says Susi Bascon, and members of the legal community – lawyers, judges, paralegal workers – are encouraged to contact her if they would like to contribute in any way.