Lawyers fighting for the rights of their clients are often intimidated, threatened, or even killed
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Lawyers are often the last line of defense for those facing torture and unfair trial in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia, yet they themselves often come under attack in connection with their work, Amnesty International said in a report published Wednesday.
The report, Confronting the Circle of Injustice: Threats and Pressure Faced by Lawyers in the North Caucasus, examines the harassment encountered by criminal defense lawyers in the North Caucasus, a region of the Russian Federation where the violence of armed groups is countered by the heavy-handed response of the authorities, often with scant respect for basic human rights.
“Russian lawyers have a duty to protect the rights of their clients in the face of a criminal justice system geared to delivering convictions,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program director. “Fulfilling their duties towards their clients often brings considerable risks to themselves. Lawyers in the North Caucasus who fight for the rights of their clients are often intimidated, threatened, sometimes subjected to physical violence, and even killed, while law enforcement officials behind these attacks enjoy impunity.”
The Russian authorities are obliged to provide security for the local population in accordance with the rule of law and with full respect for human rights. However, law enforcement officials are often reported to use torture and other ill-treatment for investigation purposes. Lawyers who try to prevent their clients from incriminating themselves and who challenge violations of their clients’ rights are often seen as a hindrance to the administration of justice, rather than crucial supporters of it. There are also allegations of forced disappearances and unlawful executions by Russian police. When Russian authorities fail to effectively investigate such cases, this further undermines the rule of law.
“The very lawyers who represent victims of abuses by law enforcement officials face the same problem as their clients – the lack of effective legal remedies that would enable them to have perpetrators identified and brought to justice,” said Dalhuisen. “Being a lawyer and knowing the law is sadly not an advantage that makes much difference when powerful security officials are involved.”
Against this backdrop, lawyers have a vital role to play in representing victims of human rights abuses and ensuring fair trials for those accused of participating in armed groups or other criminal activity.
“For detainees, their defense lawyer is often the only contact with the outside world that can attest to their torture and seek to uphold their rights,” said Dalhuisen. “Those lawyers who confront the circle of injustice in the North Caucasus often themselves become its victims.”
Amnesty International’s report presents a string of cases where lawyers were ill-treated and in one instance, even killed.
In 2010, Dagestani lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova was beaten by police when she went to visit her detained client. After she insisted that the incident be impartially investigated, she herself had criminal charges brought against her.
In December 2011, a lawyer in Nalchik was badly injured in a suspicious car accident involving police. He received death threats both before and after this incident. Police have failed to investigate the road incident.
Lawyer Omar Saidmagomedov and his cousin were killed by security officials on January 20, 2012 in a street of Makhachkala, Dagestan, which the authorities reported as the killing of two members of an armed group. However, Saidmagomedov’s colleagues allege he was unlawfully executed, and themselves face harassment in connection with their attempts to uncover the truth.
“The Russian authorities must ensure that lawyers are protected and free to perform their professional duties without fear," said Dalhuisen. “They must ensure that all perpetrators of violence and other abuses in relation to lawyers are brought to justice. They must also ensure that lawyers are able to defend their clients without obstruction.”
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists, and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.