With the rule of law under attack all over the world, has it ever been more dangerous to defend the rights of others?
‘If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers,’ Dickens wrote, presumably envisaging ‘bad people’ to be lawyers’ clients, rather than the governments of the day.
Yet last year we witnessed a horrifying and unprecedented crackdown on the legal profession across the world. In China alone almost 200 lawyers were rounded up and hauled in for questioning over the course of one week in July.
Across the globe lawyers were routinely hassled, threatened and detained; most of them human rights lawyers. At the time of their arrest many were involved in high-profile proceedings against the state. In these cases, I do not think it takes much to work out who the bad people, and good lawyers, are.
Amnesty International UK is currently working on the cases of dozens of lawyers in countries such as Mexico, Angola, Egypt, Israel, Vietnam and Colombia. Prominent human rights lawyer Tahir Elci, who faced criminal charges for defending Kurdish rebels, was shot dead in Turkey after speaking out against arbitrary arrests of minority ethnicities. Has it ever been more dangerous to defend the rights of others?
Such was the prominence of legal professionals in our caseload this year that we even selected imprisoned Saudi Arabian lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair to be one of the main focuses of our annual Write for Rights campaign – the world’s biggest human rights campaign.
As a human rights lawyer, 36-year-old Waleed defended the rights of a number of prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, including pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes. Waleed himself was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being found guilty of charges including ‘disobeying the ruler’ and ‘insulting the judiciary’.
Waleed has committed no crime; he has worked peacefully to document human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and defend the rights of victims.
China was without doubt the scene of the most flagrant attack on the legal profession in 2015. Amnesty considers that such a purge can only have been carried out with the agreement of the highest levels of government. Indeed, The People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, claimed that to build a society that uses the law to resolve problems, the police need to ‘strike hard against illegal lawyers according to the law’.
Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm was singled out as being at the centre of the ‘criminal gang’. The firm had taken on a large number of high-profile human rights cases over recent years, including that of Cao Shunli, who died in custody in 2014 after the state denied her medical treatment. They also represented the victims of the 2008 tainted milk powder scandal. No doubt these are exactly the kinds of case the government would rather did not make it to court.
One of the firm’s lawyers, Wang Yu, was among the first to be arrested in the crackdown. Early one morning she had sent a worried text to her friends, stating that her internet and electricity had been cut off. Then, a little later, she sent another message saying that people were trying to break in. When her friends tried to contact her later that morning, she was nowhere to be found. It is the sort of chilling chronology of a crime you could imagine a barrister reading out to a jury. Wang Yu is still missing, as are around 20 of the lawyers targeted in the crackdown.
Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was handed a three-year suspended sentence for ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles’ and ‘inciting ethnic hatred’. The conviction was primarily based on seven social media posts, in total approximately 600 characters, in which Pu criticised Chinese government officials and polices.
With such audacious attacks on the rule of law occurring all over the world, we are going to need more good lawyers than ever before. And brave ones too if the experiences of 2015 are anything to go by. The question is, will there be any left?
Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK