COURAGE has become a job prerequisite for lawyers and judges in many parts of the world, particularly in countries with unstable or repressive governments.
A new report from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights documents close to 500 cases in 1991 involving the harassment, arrest, torture, or murder of legal professionals for their defense of basic freedoms. The report was released today, a date celebrated as Law Day in many nations.
Most of the human rights violations against lawyers and judges occurred in nations run by governments that are either repressive or under attack by opposition forces. In Peru, where the government and Shining Path guerrillas have been in a virtual state of war, violent deaths of legal professionals have been common. Repressive governments intimidate lawyers
In a number of other cases - such as Argentina, the Philippines, and Brazil - former ruling forces, such as the military, often continue to intimidate lawyers and judges who take a stand for human rights.
According to As Jeneen Masih, who compiled the report, the government may be doing the harassing itself or may be failing to provide enough protection for lawyers and judges under attack.
Cases cited in the report include the dismissal of more than 200 ethnic Albanian judges and lawyers by the parliament of Serbia in Yugoslavia, the deaths of 22 legal professionals in Colombia, and 31 cases of arrest and harassment in the Sudan.
The Khartoum government also has banned the Sudan Bar Association. Ms. Masih says if legal professionals cannot join together to challenge the legitimacy of a repressive government's laws, or the way they are carried out, lawyers miss a powerful tool. "It's a very easy way for such governments to disarm unfavorable criticism," she says. Courageous lawyers face death
Marvin Frankel, chairman of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, says that the effect of attacks against lawyers reaches well beyond the number of cases cited. The aim, he says, is really to "terrorize" others.
"That's the real problem," says Mr. Frankel. "The ones that get killed or kidnapped are ... the courageous ones. The rest of us - I don't want to claim that if I were in that situation I'd be one of the heroes - probably aren't going to get into that kind of scrape because we're scared off ... In Colombia or Peru, for instance, if a judge makes a decision disliked by one or another of the warring factions, they're liable to kill him."
Americans often take the independence of their legal system for granted. In some nations lawyers are forced to operate as agents of government and to hand down political decisions. The New York-based lawyers committee, publishing its third annual legal harassment report this spring, has never cited any cases from North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, or Iraq. None has an independent legal profession and or tolerates legal challenges to human rights violations. Efforts to build a separate legal and judicial sy stem also are still very much under way in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Masih is coordinator of the lawyers committee's Lawyer-to-Lawyer Network which was launched in 1987. The group has 6,000 members in 90 countries. They make it their business to draft politely worded letters and telegrams to government officials on behalf of their harassed legal colleagues and send them off regularly. Masih says the attention often pays off in better treatment and earlier release of those persecuted. "Our goal is to be in touch with every country ... to get to the point where people in tr ouble will know enough to contact us," she says.