NEW YORK — MANY Americans take their legal rights for granted. A new report released May 1 - Law Day in many Western nations - serves as a vivid reminder that "rights" as basic as free speech and a fair trial are still unrecognized or severely restricted in many parts of the world. The new report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a New York-based nonprofit group, focuses on 470 cases in 48 countries of lawyers, judges, law faculty, and law students persecuted or harassed for work on behalf of human rights and the rule of law. Fifty-seven were killed.
The number of cases recorded is 200 higher than the total in the first "In Defense of Rights" report issued last year. Yet Pamela Price, the committee staff member who compiled the report, says the number is not definitive. Publicizing one case, she says, often encourages the reporting of others. Also the report singles out regimes such as North Korea, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia as so "closed and repressive" that data are hard to obtain.
Sudan accounts for the largest number of cases in the report. Since a 1989 military coup there, some 128 judges have been dismissed and replaced by military judges, at least 26 lawyers have been detained without charge, and all newspapers, professional associations, and political parties have been banned. Such "systematic violation" of the independence of lawyers and judges by the government is the kind of human rights violation that the lawyers committee regards as the most egregious. The report argues that those lawfully engaged in the pursuit of justice deserve to work for it in a climate of freedom and security.
The report lists Burma (Myanmar), China, Kenya, and Turkey in the same category as Sudan in that respect. The report focuses on 14 lawyers detained without trial in Burma, noting that their whereabouts are unknown and that jail conditions there are widely reported to be poor and torture common. The report charges that the government of Kenya has stepped up its attacks on those advocating political pluralism and singles out the case of Gitobu Imanyara, editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly. Arrested several times on a mix of charges including publication of subversive articles on human rights, he is now being held without bail in a maximum-security prison.
The number of cases is often highest, says Ms. Price, where a nation has both a controlled government and a strong tradition of an independent judiciary. "The two sort of butt heads," she says.
While governments are not always the persecutors of legal professionals - in Colombia drug traffickers have gunned down many judges and human rights advocates - the lawyers committee directs its message to government officials on the theory that they are responsible for what happens within their borders.
The 4,000 lawyers and legal groups who are part of the committee's Lawyer-to-Lawyer-Network are asked to write "politely worded" letters directly to governments on individual cases in response to monthly appeals by the committee. The pertinent US ambassador there and the nation's ambassador based in the US are to receive copies. It is the same tactic practiced with success by many other human rights organizations.
The main effect, says Price, who is the Network coordinator, is to embarrass governments with the message that they are being closely watched.
The technique works. A blue note card on a bulletin board over Price's desk features a drawing of a lizard labeled "my cellmate" and the message, "Thanks a million." The card is from Teo Soh Lung, a Singapore human rights lawyer who was arrested by the government several times on undocumented security and conspiracy charges. Though many of her activities are still tightly regulated, she was released from prison in June 1990.
Similarly, after many letters of protest to the government of Malawi concerning a married couple, both lawyers, convicted of treason in 1983, their death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Their daughter, says Price, insists that the couple's prison conditions improve after every letter writing campaign.
"Obviously that's not ideal, but they're still alive," says Price. "It's sort of one step at a time."