Regime Erodes Lawyers' Independence

Legal profession is failing to stand up to authorities' abuse of civil rights.

Regime Erodes Lawyers' Independence

Legal profession is failing to stand up to authorities' abuse of civil rights.

Friday, 23 October, 2009
Every time I visited Haitham al-Maleh in his office in an attractive old Damascene house, he asked me about the progress of my career as a young lawyer. And every time, I repeated the same complaints about restrictions and violations of civil freedoms.

Maleh, a 78-year-old attorney who is considered to be the godfather of Syrian human rights advocates, always responded by saying that the lawyers of his time were “real gentlemen, loyal to their profession and its principles, and fearless in standing up for truth and justice”.

Today, Maleh is believed to be in detention after the political security services arrested him on October 14.

For decades, Maleh had been an active human rights advocate and a vocal critic of corruption and arbitrariness in the implementation of the law as well as grave violations of civil freedoms.

But his arrest might have come after he gave an interview to the London-based opposition TV station Barada, where he criticised authorities for repression of freedom of expression.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said recently that the veteran dissident was formally put under arrest after military prosecutors questioned him. He may face charges of “spreading false information”.

It is not the first time that he has been behind bars. Back in the 1980s, he spent seven years in jail for advocating democracy.

Often when I visited him, he would recall the civil rights strike that he had organised with other colleagues in March 1980 to call for the state of emergency to be withdrawn.

Syria has been governed by an emergency law since 1963 when the Baath party took power.

The human rights situation back then was very bad. The regime was cracking down severely on civil society. Nevertheless, activists like Maleh continued to struggle for democracy. He was actively working within a committee for freedoms and human rights at the bar association.

Shortly after the strike, the lawyers’ union was dissolved and many attorneys were arrested and subsequently spent long years in jail without trial.

The previous law that guaranteed the independence of the bar was cancelled and replaced with a new one that placed lawyers under the tight control of the ruling party and the security apparatus.

What strikes me today is the erratic nature of the system. One day, you appear before a judge as a lawyer and the next you are taking the stand as a defendant.

Maleh had served as a judge between 1958 and 1966 before authorities decided to remove him for political reasons.

Most recently, he was the head of the defence team of another prominent lawyer and human rights advocate, Muhannad al-Hassani, who has been under arrest since last July and is currently on trial.

It was insulting to see Hassani, who used to come to the building of the bar association as one of its members, being brought there in a police car with his hands tied to listen to his colleagues accuse him of “spreading false information” instead of defending him.

The bar association lacks independence and fails to defend its members when their rights are violated. But what is worse, under the orders of the security apparatus, its members prosecute colleagues active in the human rights field like Maleh, Hassani and Anwar al-Bunni, another activist detained since 2006.

In another irony last week, Hassani was questioned again by an investigative judge at the palace of justice, in the same building and at the same time as the bar was holding elections for its board members - an event that takes place once every four years.

Hundreds of lawyers were present to cast their votes although they were aware that their voice would not change anything. Only a handful of them were there to support their colleague in his unfair trial.

Every single lawyer I talked to that day said that the representatives of the Baath party would win the majority of seats. They also made fun of the campaigns of the candidates that revolved around sending mobile phone messages, organising fancy dinners or distributing cheap watches to colleagues.

None of the nominated lawyers had a real programme or a vision of how to improve the future of the profession or at least prevent it from deteriorating further.

Despite all this, most members swallowed their bitterness and voted to keep good relations with the bar’s council.

Before I joined the bar a few years ago, I was still an idealist. My aspiration to become a “messenger of justice” soon evaporated after I found myself as a trainee tempted to bribe an employee to get hold of a legal document.

I remember how I clung to the money in my hand. I was shaking and sweating in front of the employee who kept ignoring me. Only after hinting that I would pay him did he agree to answer my questions. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to hand him the bribe and subsequently failed to get the document. As a result, I was scolded by the senior lawyer in the case.

Time after time, I witnessed the “black comedy” that was the reality of the corrupt judiciary in my country. Once, I watched a lawyer in court offer buckets of olives and jam to a judge as a bribe. Another time, I heard a colleague brag about speeding up the issuing of a verdict for “only” 8,000 Syrian pounds (around 170 US dollars).

I was never able to accept this reality. I still feel it is a punishment to enter the “palace of justice” or even the bar association building.

Today, I am a lawyer with too many principles and very few cases.

There might be thousands of lawyers in Syria but only few of them are “gentlemen”, to borrow Maleh’s expression. Yes, Syria seems to be running out of real lawyers.

The author of this article asked to remain anonymous.

Editor’s note:

The Syrian Bar Association says on its website:

“Members of the Syrian Bar Association have always had both professional and national responsibilities to uphold standards of excellence in the profession. The result has been a continual raising of professional standards while preserving the nation's prodigious culture and heritage.

“The vital role that members of the Association have played on the national level is evidenced by the various positions they have held including ministerial posts, members of parliament, writers, and researchers.”
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