January 24, 2024

Defending the defence: The lawyer faced with the peril of repression

BelgiumCentral African Republic (the)Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)KenyaMoroccoNiger (the)Tanzania, the United Republic ofTunisiaUgandaHuman rights defenders

This article is based on the intervention of Bruno Langhendries, head of strategic support at ASF, during the 2023 International Conference of the Bars.

Legal proceedings, harassment, intimidation, deprivation of liberty, and sometimes direct physical harm. Throughtout the world, lawyers working on behalf of human rights, civil society or vulnerable groups are threatened and attacked simply for doing their job.

This is the reality that we and our partners have to face wherever we operate. Our teams report repeated and increasing attacks on lawyers, and more generally on human rights defenders, in a global context of erosion the rule of law, narrowing of civic space and hypertrophy of executive power to the detriment of the legislative and judicial systems.

The perils faced by lawyers as the rule of law crumbles

In the contexts in which ASF works, lawyers face multiple threats:

  • Harassment, threats and intimidation, and in rarer cases, direct attacks on physical integrity. They come from representatives of the authorities or actors who claim to come from civil society but who are often very close to those in power.
  • Prosecution or deprivation of liberty:
    o In the exercise of their profession. Repressive legislation is invoked or the immunity that lawyers are supposed to enjoy is lifted. Defamation, slander or apology for terrorism are then the preferred grounds for prosecution.
    o In their private lives. Lawyers are prosecuted for acts unrelated to their profession.

These repressive tactics are used by authorities when they feel their interests are threatened.

Lawyers find themselves the target of these attacks most often when they :

  • Defend members of civil society, political opponents and people in vulnerable situations, who are often already victims of state repression.
  • Denounce repressive and arbitrary practices of state agents.
  • Denounce reforms that threaten the rule of law.

The aim of the authorities is to prevent the defence from playing its role in supporting civil society and to discourage and isolate those who dare to question their practices.

AS’s teams have witnessed many examples of this dangerous trend.

In Tunisia, Maître Ayachi Hammani was prosecuted for criticising the Minister of Justice after the arbitrary dismissal of more than fifty judges.

Still in Tunisia, Maître Hayet Jazzar and Maître Ayoub Ghedamsi were prosecuted after pleading on behalf of a victim of torture committed by police officers.

In 2022; in the Central African Republic, Maître Manguareka was harassed after defending the interests of an opponent of the regime in court. In the country, all lawyers and their bar associations are branded enemies of peace by groups close to the government.

In Uganda, Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer, was arrested along with other lawyers and held in detention for several weeks. Initially arrested without charge, he was later prosecuted for money laundering.

In Burundi, 5 members of partner associations were arrested and imprisoned for four months, mainly because they were working with Avocats Sans Frontières.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples we could mention.

It is important to point out that all these cases are different and take place in specific contexts.

However, in all these countries, the intensification of repression against lawyers, and more broadly against human rights defenders, goes hand in hand with the shrinking of civic space that we observe everywhere we work.

What we think is important to note is that :

  • On the one hand, this persecution of lawyers is acompanied by increased repression of other voice-bearers, of human rights defenders, whether they are acting in a professional capacity or as citizens.
  • This narrowing of civic space is the corollary of the rise of populism and continued attacks to the principles of the rule of law.

This narrowing of civic space will most often be used to favor the executive power to the detriment of legislative and judicial powers. This slide towards more authoritarian regimes is often accelerated by the use of states of emergency or states of siege. The supposedly temporary freedom restricing measures are held over the long term and sometimes made into common law. This transition towards more authoritarian regimes can also occur in a more brutal way during coups d’état, as was the case recently in Tunisia or in the Sahel.

In the countries in which ASF operates, the organisation implements programmes to defend human rights in partnership with civil society and the lawyer bars.

ASF, in collaboration with its local partners, mobilises the following approaches to support lawyers and human rights defenders:

  • The development of collectives of lawyers and human rights defenders so that they can assert their rights collectively and react quickly in the event of a threat.
  • Defending lawyers in the event of prosecution or deprivation of liberty. In the event of prosecution or deprivation of liberty, ASF supports the defence of lawyers, in particular by mobilising international actors and urging them to act.
  • Monitoring human rights violations and threats to civic space and human rights defenders, including lawyers. Based on this monitoring, ASF develops advocacy strategies in favour of civil liberties and the defence of human rights defenders and lawyers.
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