Lawyers can be victimised for simply doing their job

I am a member of Amnesty International and have heard that lawyers often are victimised by oppressive regimes and others. How much of a problem is this?

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 4:00 pm
Supporters of Amnesty International promoting the work the organisation does around the world.
Supporters of Amnesty International promoting the work the organisation does around the world.

Certain groups of people are routinely targeted by dictatorships either of the Left or of the Right and by others in power.

For instance – trade unionists/people who are not the “right” ethnic background/”intellectuals” sometimes/people who don’t belong to the “correct” political party/people who don’t follow the “correct” religion. To an oppressive regime it is a case not only of “if you are not with us you are against us” but a case also of “if you are not exactly like us you are the enemy”.

Lawyers can get victimised not for holding political beliefs or religious beliefs but simply for doing their job. The job of lawyering entails trying to ensure the Rule of Law is followed. If lawyers are doing the job right that may mean that they seek to hold to account government or other authority EVEN WHEN they are actually in agreement with the authority concerned.

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Dictators and others find that kind of thing hard to grasp. (“If you are not with us you are against us”).

Another thing lawyers do is to ask questions. Dictators don’t much like questions either.

Like some other groups – journalists spring to mind (also askers of questions) – lawyers are often not very popular. Which is understandable to an extent; apart from writing your will or buying a house the only other times in your life you may come into contact with a lawyer if ever are when you are in some kind of bother – at a time when maybe you are not in a frame of mind likely to endear you to the lawyer concerned. And “Fat cat lawyers” are the meat and drink of tabloid newspaper loathing.

But sometimes people who practise law aren’t on such a cushy number. The case of Hans Achim Litten is instructive about what risks lawyers sometimes may run. He was a lawyer who represented opponents of the Nazis at political trials between 1929 and 1932. In 1931 he subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to appear as a witness and cross-examined him for 3 hours. This was not forgotten and when the Nazis came to power Litten was arrested and spent the remainder of his life in concentration camps – he died in one aged 34.

That was a long time ago of course but things aren’t necessarily much better nowadays – in some parts of the world anyway. For instance in the Philippines between 2016 and July 2019 43 lawyers of various kinds were murdered. In July 2015 in China 248 human rights lawyers got detained and many of them were charged with subversion – just for representing their clients. Some were imprisoned. In November of 2007 in Pakistan the then President declared a state of emergency which was swiftly followed by the arrests of many many lawyers among others perceived as enemies of the State.

It is worth remembering that the practise of law is not always all about fees and wigs and gowns and pomp and circumstance – the way non-lawyers (and some lawyers themselves too) - sometimes can see it. Sometimes lawyers are sticking up for the rules by which as democrats we say we wish to live. Hence non-democrats often think it is worth getting rid of lawyers.