24 January 2017 marked the seventh Day of the Endangered Lawyer. While this year’s focus is on China, we also want to take this day as an opportunity to highlight the situation for lawyers in the countries where PBI works.
Lawyers challenging those responsible for human rights violations pay an extremely high price - they may have their work obstructed, be followed, watched, harassed, subjected to spurious prosecutions, killed or ‘forcibly disappeared’.
On the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, we would like to honour all human rights lawyers, who put their lives at risk on a daily basis in the fight for justice.
The IACHR described Honduras in August as “one of the most hostile and dangerous countries for lawyers and human rights defenders.” According to CONADEH, 114 lawyers and prosecutors have been murdered between January 2010 and August 2016. 94% of these cases remain unsolved and impunity puts lawyers at greater risk.
Donald Hernández, a Honduran lawyer and human rights defender who PBI accompanies said: “[T]he support of international accompaniment organisations that collect testimonies of attacks and make them public at international level … this has helped prevent attacks which have historically happened.”
Mandira Sharma co-founded the Nepalese human rights lawyers Advocacy Forum in 2001. She represents victims of torture and abuse dating back to the country’s civil war from 1996 to 2006. As a result of her investigation against high-profile individuals in the government and military, she has received personal threats to her safety in the media, with pundits calling her a traitor and making statements such as “people’s action should be carried out against her.” Despite the threats, Mandira Sharma says in this interview with Peace Brigades International that “ … somebody has to take the risk if you really want to build a society where everyone is secure.”
In Colombia, human rights lawyers also face many serious threats for their work, including being linked to insurgent organisations by government officials, and being publically identified as ‘military targets’ by death squads. According to the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyer’s Group, over 400 lawyers have been killed since 1991. In addition, well over 4,500 incidents against legal practitioners were recorded. In the first six months of 2016, no less than 35 defenders were murdered.
Since 1995, PBI has accompanied the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (CAJAR), which works for the defence and promotion of human rights in Colombia. Recounting the horrific campaign against his family, friends and colleagues in this interview with PBI, Luis Guillermo Pérez, the president of the collective, states “A lot of our friends and colleagues have died … Our pain is enormous, since we have loved and lost so many people.”
After leaving a court hearing in Nairobi, high court lawyer Willie Kimani, his client, and a cab driver were abducted and killed - an event that was denounced by the Kenyan Law Society as “a dark day for the rule of law” in the country. Kimani represented Josephat Mwendwa, who had filed a complaint that he had been shot and injured by police in April 2016. Lawyers and journalists investigating cases of extra-judicial killings and police accountability continue to face severe obstacles and threats in Kenya.
In Guatemala, the work of Edgar Pérez Archila and the Human Rights Law Firm (BJDH) has resulted in landmark decisions that have improved access to justice for many more victims of past and current human rights abuses. However, the price has been a life under constant threat. The past few years have seen an increase in human rights violations in Guatemala, and judges and lawyers are being pressured and intimidated.
PBI has accompanied Edgar Pérez Archila since August 2010. In the past six years, we have been able to witness several of his victories, from the conviction of four soldiers in 2011 for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, to the sentencing of former president Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013.