Our tranquil days away from the office are given perspective by the plight of lawyers around the world.
At a time when we are reading the Gazette on a tablet smeary with sun oil, or while sitting on a terrace overlooking lakes and mountains, we should remember those lawyers not taking a summer holiday this year. Just as the world’s news is becoming so unbearable as to be unwatchable, so the fate of harassed lawyers seems to be growing worse, too.
The Chinese human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, was released from jail a few days ago. You might think that this is good news. But his prison conditions were so dire that it is reported that he has become emotionless and unintelligible through the trauma suffered in jail, besides losing many teeth as a result of malnutrition. He was previously known for campaigning for religious freedom, particularly for members of the banned group Falun Gong. But he was arrested in 2009 and accused of inciting subversion.
Zinaida Mukhortova, a lawyer from Kazakhstan, is suffering from an old Soviet style of punishment. She provided the local population with free legal consultations and denounced cases of corruption and interference by political interests in the judiciary.
In 2009, together with three other lawyers, she filed a complaint to the president of Kazakhstan against a member of parliament, denouncing his interference in the administration of justice. Since then she has faced grievous harassment, including forced stays in mental institutions. This time last year, it was reported that four police officers, one doctor, two nurses and two medical staff broke into her house, forced her into an ambulance, and brought her to a psychiatric hospital.
Last month again, she was apparently detained and forcibly hospitalised, then injected with an unidentified medicine, which put her to sleep for 24 hours or so. On waking, her speech was reportedly slower than usual and her face swollen. She has been threatened that she will never leave the clinic if she appeals to a court against her hospitalisation. During a previous forced hospitalisation, doctors explained that she was being held for her ‘refusal to admit her guilt’, for ‘her interviews with the press’, and also for her ‘aspiration to justice’.
The list goes on. In Saudi Arabia, Mr Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human rights lawyer and founder of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced last month to 15 years’ imprisonment, barred from travelling for another 15 years after the completion of his prison term and fined over £30,000.
The charges were ‘striving to overthrow the state and the authority of the King’; ‘criticising and insulting the judiciary’; ‘assembling international organisations against the Kingdom’; ‘creating and supervising an unlicensed organisation, and contributing to the establishment of another’; and, ‘preparing and storing information that will affect public security’.
The real reason for his fate might be deduced from the judge ordering the suspension of five of his 15 years’ imprisonment if he will refrain from human rights activity on his release.
We are travelling from east to west. In St Petersburg, Russia, a human rights lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, is being harassed (his organisation is being required to register as a foreign agent, his wife is being deported). In Crimea, there are reports that lawyers who are politically active and do not support the Russian takeover have been intimidated into leaving.
And just in case we think it is only human rights lawyers outside the EU who face difficulties, my organisation, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), wrote last month to Chris Grayling asking him to take measures to protect Phil Shiner (the subject of death threats because of his work representing Iraqis in war crimes cases), and to guarantee in general that lawyers in the UK are able to perform their professional duties without fear of reprisal, hindrance, intimidation and harassment.
I prefer to get on with my holiday reading. But the unutterably sad plight of so many of the human rights lawyers beyond the EU keeps intruding.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs