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Law: Human rights on trial

British lawyers are trying to secure fairness and justice abroad. Marie Ryan asks if they are succeeding
SOLICITOR Louise Christian had already carried out trial observations in Turkey and Slovenia when she agreed to join a human rights delegation to south-east Turkey in 1992. But she had no idea how profoundly she was to be affected by this mission.

It was Navros - Kurdish New Year - an annual collision of Kurdish cultural celebration with the might of the Turkish military, with the human rights of the Kurds invariably coming off second-best. Along with Lord Avebury and several other observers, and in the company of Kurdish MP Leyla Zana, Ms Christian was there to act as an independent witness to events that would later be catalogued in an official report.

"We interviewed women and children with gunshot wounds, which was upsetting enough, but the killings continued while we were there." She recalls a series of disturbing events: the funeral march where all the mourners were arrested, one of whom subsequently died in custody; the five-year- old boy shot by the police during a demonstration in Diyarbakir, and the village where they witnessed bodies being pulled from a mass grave.

Louise Christian is one of a number of British lawyers who regularly carry out trial observations and missions to countries with human rights problems. While some, like her, have a background in civil liberties casework or human rights law, they come from all fields of practice.

The Bar Human Rights Committee was set up in 1991 and currently has around 30 committee members and a few dozen supporters. Its broad human rights remit includes assisting lawyers in foreign countries who, in carrying out their work, face persecution from the authorities. Barristers sent to observe trials receive no reimbursement other than the cost of the flight and, in some cases, hotel accommodation.

In 1994 the committee sent Joanna Glynn to Kenya to observe the trial of Koigi Wa Wamwere, arrested on trumped-up charges of robbery with violence and facing a possible death sentence. An Amnesty prisoner of conscience, his case attracted international interest.

So how much difference did the presence of international observers like herself make? "Some of us feel that we positively influenced the outcome. He was charged with robbery with violence, which carries a mandatory death penalty, but he was convicted of robbery without the violence element, which was inconceivable on the basis of the evidence. Either the magistrate believed the evidence or he didn't, so it was a surprise verdict."

Nicholas Stewart QC, chairman of the Bar Human Rights Committee, admits that measuring the effectiveness of missions and trial observations is difficult. "Lawyers in the countries we visit always tell us it does make some difference. At the very least, it supports and boosts morale for those working for human rights inside those countries."

Most missions result in a detailed report examining the ways the country under examination is failing to meet agreed international human rights standards. These reports are then distributed to MPs, government departments, the media and the foreign government under scrutiny. In the case of Turkey, before its application for admission to the European Union was rejected, they were also sent to the Council of Europe.

The Law Society has an international human rights working party which also sends lawyers abroad to investigate. Like the Bar Human Rights Committee, its focus is on upholding the rule of law and international legal standards, with particular emphasis on supporting lawyers under threat.

Not all investigations are carried out abroad. For example, explains solicitor Jane Deighton, it conducted an inquiry into the death of Northern Ireland solicitor Patrick Finucane, murdered by a Loyalist paramilitary group in 1989 after receiving death threats.

Solicitor Michael Ellman is now semi-retired but continues to carry out missions and trial observations. A background in general, matrimonial and immigration law with mainly French clients has been balanced by a long-term interest in human rights. As well as being a member of the Liberty executive committee, he is vice-president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) and has undertaken a number of missions for Amnesty International.

Two years ago he went to the newly-established Palestinian territories to monitor the elections as part of an EU team. "It was very exciting, the people were tremendously enthusiastic, they thought that peace was coming, and that it was really going to work. Unfortunately since then everything has gone down hill."

But he remains optimistic that his work in foreign countries is worthwhile. He is dismissive of governments who say that human rights are a western concept which fails to take account of their very different cultures and ways of doing things. "That's a very dangerous argument. The human rights movement believes in the universality of human rights. Of course, one has to take into account cultural factors. But no cultural factor is sufficient to deprive women or children or minorities of their basic human rights, and the pretence that cultural factors entitle the people in power to deprive others of their rights is completely unacceptable."

Louise Christian believes more reciprocity would be better for all concerned. "I would like to see far more human rights missions from other countries to this country, and to Northern Ireland, than there currently are, but I don't think that being a Third-World country gives you a licence to break international conventions on the way in which a trial should be conducted."

Law Society member Jane Deighton admits that trial observations are limited in what they can achieve, and in recognition of this the Law Society has expanded the brief given to solicitors to include an examination of the wider background against which a trial takes place, "so that the involvement of the Law Society is more profound rather than just a person sitting in court".

Louise Christian found herself back in Turkey in 1995, three years after the Kurdish Navros delegation, to observe the trial of Leyla Zana, the Kurdish MP who had accompanied them in 1992. Zana was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

"I've noticed that people have been released in lot of the trials we've attended, Leyla's trial was the exception and that's why it is the one that affects me the most - she's still in prison.

"It was the ultimate in Kafkaesque legal procedures. Most of the first week was spent reading out the indictment - a political diatribe of the most extraordinary nature. Allegations included things like meeting President Mitterrand, giving interviews to American television, and wearing Kurdish colours in parliament. Things that we take for granted in our country are described as crimes in Turkey."