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NEWS

In Defence of Defence Lawyers

editor - January 30, 2015

LawyerEarlier this month, a Human Rights Lawyer in Tajikistan, Shukhrat Kudratov, was found guilty of fraud and bribery and sentenced to nine years in prison, in a trial that Human Rights Watch labelled ‘politically motivated.

Kudratov is known in Tajikistan for taking on numerous politically sensitive cases as well as representing both victims of torture and those accused by the government of religious extremism. He most recently represented Zayd Saidov, the leader of the New Tajikistan opposition party, who in December 2013 was sentenced to 26 years in prison in a case widely seen as a response to the political challenge against the government. Notably, one of Saidov’s previous lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, withdrew his representation of Saidov after being under an amnesty released from an eight-month detention on fraud charges.

Human Rights Watch are not the only organisation to have raised concerns, with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) arguing in November that the charges against Kudratov were “linked to his representation of a client, contrary to international standards on the independence of lawyers.”

Unfortunately the Kudratov situation is just one of many deeply concerning cases seen where the rule of law surrounding defence lawyers has been impeached. Last week brought the fifth annual ‘Day of the Endangered Lawyer’ this year focussing on the situation in the Philippines, where 39 lawyers have been killed in since 2004, and the occasion was marked by a series of protests and activities around Europe.

The importance of lawyers and fair trials defenders in the legal system cannot be underestimated. When an individual is accused of a criminal offence they must, according to the basic Right to a Fair Trial, be given a fair chance to present a defence, based on the principle of a 'Presumption of Innocence' and the onus is laid on the state to prove guilt. Access to a lawyer is a crucial part of this, from the point of arrest through to the trial itself, so that the individual can understand the case against them. Lawyers have the knowledge and practical tools to protect individuals and are therefore the first line of defence to ensure fair trial rights are not abused. If lawyers are unable to carry on their work without fear of consequences it completely undermines the right to a fair trial.

Should a lawyer be intimidated, threatened or worse the right to a fair trial is immediately compromised and further still, if there is a sense that there is potential for coercion then it creates a real challenge for the defendant to get any legal representation whatsoever. This was the situation in Pakistan last year where Junaid Hafeez, accused of blasphemy, struggled to find a lawyer to represent him until Rashid Rehman from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan eventually stepped in. Just a few weeks later Rehman was shot dead in his office in Multan.

The restrictions on lawyers and fair trial defenders often come from areas with a previous history of human rights abuses and therefore they may come as less of a surprise. For example the Raif Badawi case in Saudi Arabia that is currently receiving high-profile attention, saw his lawyer Waleed Abulkhair sentenced to 15 years for ‘inciting public opinion’. Meanwhile in China, renowned human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was jailed by police as the country sees ‘the worst crackdown on lawyers, activists and scholars in decades,’ according to The Guardian. Yet the victimisation of fair trial defenders is not limited to countries with  known track records of human rights; in the US last year we saw lawyer Debo Adegbile suffering due to his previous Death Penalty work.

Fair Trials seeks to highlight environments where lawyers are unable to work freely, and the Kudratov case in Tajikistan is just the latest in a long list. However the importance of the issue is one that remains at the forefront of our work; ensuring states uphold the rule of law and the right to a fair trial around the world. Shukhrat Kudratov turned 38 last week inside a Tajikistan jail, and faces a further eight more birthdays behind bars, becoming yet another key human rights lawyer removed from the justice system.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on 020 7822 2370 or 07950 849 851.

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If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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