Ulster worst for threat to lawyers

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MORE LAWYERS in Northern Ireland were the victims of death threats and harassment than in any other part of the European Union, according to an international report into the infringement of lawyers' human rights.

The study, by the International Commission of Jurists based in Geneva and presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, found that 40 lawyers working in Northern Ireland had complained of intimidation last year. The number included the case of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson who was murdered in a car bomb attack last month. Focusing on Mrs Nelson's death the ICJ called on the Government to order a judicial inquiry into the "wider issue of intimidation of defence lawyers by police in Northern Ireland".

The ICJ investigators identified 446 cases worldwide where lawyers had been murdered, assaulted, intimidated or disappeared. Turkey, with 93 cases, was the only country in Europe to have a worse record for harassing lawyers than Northern Ireland.

Mona Rishmawi, the ICJ's director of the Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, said she met Rosemary Nelson last year while investigating threats and intimidation faced by lawyers in the province.

"She was on the top of our list because she knew something would happen to her," said Ms Rishmawi. Of the 40 lawyers known to have been the subject of harassment in Northern Ireland, Mrs Nelson, was the only one who was prepared to go public with her complaints, said Ms Rishmawi. An investigation into Mrs Nelson's death is being led by Kent police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Typically, the ICJ claimed, many lawyers had received death threats and were the target of intimidation. Ms Rishmawi said: "The RUC want to get confessions out of them [the suspects] and try pushing them to confess by undermining the lawyer. They feel the lawyer is an obstacle."

While the ICJ welcomes Britain's decision to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into national law through the Human Rights Act, Ms Rishmawi said she was "extremely worried" about the Nelson case and that of another solicitor, Patrick Finucane, who was shot dead in front of his wife and three children in 1989. No one has been tried for his murder.

A spokesman for the Law Society of Northern Ireland said it would bring all complaints to the attention of the RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan.

The ICJ report also named Colombia, Brazil, Tunisia, Burma and Turkey as having the worst records for the intimidation and violent treatment of lawyers.

The number of lawyers killed in the countries investigated by the ICJ jumped from 26 in 1997 to 49 last year.

A total of 230 lawyers were arrested, prosecuted or tortured, 73 were physically attacked, 67 were verbally threatened and 24 were professionally obstructed or sanctioned.