Tomorrow (Friday 24 January 2020) is the 10th ‘Day of the Endangered Lawyer’. This may not be a day earmarked in most people’s diaries, or even in most lawyers’, but it is an important day nonetheless and one that is worth reflecting on. Its purpose is twofold. Firstly, to consider the dangerous position some of our colleagues in more volatile legal jurisdictions find themselves in, and secondly, to contemplate the chilling effect that this has on society and the rule of law. This year the focus is on Pakistan, where the situation for lawyers is dire.
On 8 August 2016, Bilal Anwar Kasi, a prominent Pakistani lawyer and President of the Regional Balochistan Bar Association, was assassinated while leaving his home for his office. His body was brought to the government hospital in the capital Quetta for an autopsy. Outside the hospital, a number of local lawyers assembled, understandably seeking answers.
The lawyers themselves were then targeted in a cold-blooded, coordinated terrorist attack. Firstly, by a suicide bomber and secondly by a group of gunmen, opening fire systematically. Of the approximately 280 practising lawyers in Quetta at the time, 56 were killed and 92 were injured, decimating the local Balochistan Bar. The Pakistani Taliban, ISIS and Jamaat-ul-Ahar all claimed responsibility for the attack. One of the terrorist groups promised more attacks "until the imposition of an Islamic system in Pakistan".
A subsequent investigation headed up by a member of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, found responsibility for the attack lay with the government for its failure to take action against terrorist organisations. Although the investigation made a number of recommendations to ensure the safety of lawyers, most of the central recommendations have not been implemented by the government.
The International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) monitoring committee recorded that there have been at least a further 21 lawyers murdered in Pakistan since August 2018. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) documented a further nine murders from 2014 until February 2018. Those numbers are unlikely to reflect all of the unlawful killings of lawyers in the region. The real number is likely to be far higher due to reporting issues. On any view, the sheer threat that lawyers in Pakistan face on a regular basis is extremely sobering.
As practitioners based in the UK it is hard to imagine the horror of 8 August 2016, and its lasting impact on our Pakistani colleagues. Equally, it is frustrating to think that the government’s response has been found lacking and that preventative measures have not been implemented. All governments have a fundamental duty to uphold the rule of law and ensure that its legal practitioners can practice in safety.
Pakistan is also grappling with issues surrounding their strict blasphemy laws and the right to mount a defence once accused of such offences. European media has reported on the prominent Pakistani lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, who received death threats after he obtained the acquittal on appeal of his client, Asia Bibi. Ms. Bibi had been on death row since 2010 for an offence of alleged blasphemy. As a result of representing his client, Mr. Malook was forced to flee the jurisdiction in order to ensure his safety. However, it is not just Mr. Malook who has been prevented doing his job.
There are frequent reports of less well-known practitioners being hindered in their defence of those accused of blasphemy, an offence attracting a distinct emotive reaction. As well as this, members of the judiciary have had to fear for their security for simply doing their jobs. Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan, the judges who overturned Ms. Bibi’s conviction, have also been the recipients of credible death threats.
Clearly, if lawyers and members of the judiciary are hampered in fulfilling their function, the rule of law suffers and, in certain instances, can collapse. Although the situation is particularly worrying in Pakistan, they are by no means the only country where the rule of law is under threat. In the last 12 months we have seen worrying trends in Hong Kong, Turkey and indeed closer to home in Poland, where on 11 January 2020 there was a Judges’ march drawing attention to the coordinated erosion of judicial independence by the ruling Law and Justice Party.
The Pakistan Bar Council organised four strikes last summer to commemorate the Quetta massacre and urge nationwide reform. Our colleagues’ demands are not unachievable – they wish to be able to do their jobs without fear or favour and for the Justice Qazi Faez Isa reforms to be enacted. These requests are laudable and should be supported by lawyers in the UK and internationally. Whether lawyers are subjected to intimidation through office raids and surveillance, threats through abuse of disciplinary procedures, or physical attacks and imprisonment, these actions undermine and endanger the independence of the legal profession and the rule of law. This in turn means that vulnerable clients are denied the robust representation they need to protect their basic rights. It doesn’t take a lawyer to ask; ‘where’s the justice in that’?
Patrick Duffy is a member of the Bar Council's International Committee. He specialises in complex criminal law cases and cross jurisdictional investigations.