Earlier this week, the findings of a public inquiry into the assassination of Rosemary Nelson, a Catholic solicitor in Northern Ireland, were published.
Earlier this week, the findings of a public inquiry into the assassination of Rosemary Nelson, a Catholic solicitor in Northern Ireland, were published. Mrs. Nelson was killed in a car bomb attack outside her home in Lurgan, County Armagh in 1999. The report found that “the state had failed to take responsible and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary Nelson." The specific findings were a startling reminder to the world of the brutal and fatal consequences of societal demonization of the ‘other’.
Rosemary Nelson represented a number of high profile Republican terror suspects and for this reason, she rapidly became a hated figure by those whose bigotry clouded their ability to identify her as a professional lawyer and distinguish her from the alleged crimes and causes of her clients. For several years prior to her murder, Mrs. Nelson had made repeated claims that she had been subjected to death threats by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the official police force in Northern Ireland at the time. In 1998, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Param Curamaswamy, noted these threats in his annual report, and stated in a television interview that he believed her life could be in danger. He made recommendations to the British government concerning threats from police against lawyers, which were not acted upon. Later that year, Mrs. Nelson testified before a committee of the United States Congress investigating human rights in Northern Ireland, confirming that death threats had been made against her and her three children. Following her assassination the following year, there were numerous calls for an independent public inquiry into her death to examine what role, if any, the state played in it.
Although the inquiry astonishingly concluded that there had been no collusion between the security services and Mrs. Nelson’s murderers, the specific findings suggest otherwise and constitute a damning indictment of the British state and its failure to protect Nelson. The inquiry detailed how RUC members had “legitimized her (Nelson) as a target” by publicly abusing and assaulting her in Portadown two years before her death. It stated how RUC management "failed to intervene" to prevent officers "uttering abuse and threats to defence solicitors, including Mrs Nelson". It found that the RUC failed to pay attention to her home and office addresses as promised, and that there was a "corporate failure by the RUC" to warn Mrs Nelson of her vulnerability. The inquiryadded that officers within Special Branch and at RUC headquarters regarded Nelson as an active supporter of the IRA.It also said that “in assessing whether or not Rosemary Nelson’s life was at risk, RUC Special Branch failed to take into account all the intelligence and the open information available to them.”The inquiry also said that it could not rule out the possibility that rogue members of the security forces had been involved in the bomb attack.
Twelve years after her murder and £46.5 million pounds later, not a single individual has ever been prosecuted in relation to the assassination of Rosemary Nelson. She was not the first Catholic human rights lawyer to die in such a manner. A decade earlier, Patrick Finucane, a Belfast solicitor who came to prominence due to successfully challenging the British Government over several important human rights cases in the 1980s, was shot fourteen times as he sat eating a meal at his home with his wife and three children. His killer was a member of a Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDAI). In 2003, an inquiry into his death concluded that his killing was indeed perpetrated in collusion with police in Northern Ireland
For the killers of Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane and the State authorities who colluded in their murder, these individuals were as guilty of terrorism as the clients they represented. The fact that they dared to legally represent terror suspects in a court of law was as deplorable and criminal as the acts of terrorism which the suspects were accused of committing. Their murders were intended to send a chilling message to lawyers in Northern Ireland that such defendants were beyond the Pale and to try and provide them with a fair trial could result in their own summary execution.
Unfortunately, the climate of hate which prevailed in Northern Ireland and which encouraged prejudice and bigotry to infect the actions and behaviour of those entrusted with protecting the citizens of the state, and which ultimately contributed to the murders of these lawyers, continues today, albeit against a different community. Today’s reviled suspect community is the Muslim community whose legal representatives are now harassed, demonised, intimidated, abused and even murdered for upholding the presumption of innocence, the cornerstone of any respectable criminal justice system.
Just under a year ago, prominent civil liberties attorney Lynne Stewart was sentenced to ten years in prison. Stewart was the former attorney for Sheykh Omar Abdul-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric, who in 1993, at the behest of the Egyptian government, was indicted and convicted in the US for sedition for suggesting to a government informer that rather than blow up New York City landmarks he choose “a military target.” In June 2000, Stewart released a statement of the Sheykh’s to Reuters press service calling on his group to reconsider the ceasefire they had in place with the Egyptian government. By doing so, Stewart violated a Special Administrative Measure (SAM) that she had agreed to with the US government, i.e. she was not to become a medium of communication between her client and the outside world.
Interestingly, Stewart was never prosecuted for her actions under the Clinton administration nor during the first years of George W. Bush. It was only in April 2002, months after the opening of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, that Stewart was arrested with the Attorney General John Ashcroft even announcing the indictment against her – conspiracy to provide material aid to a terrorist organisation. Stuart was initially sentenced to a 28 month sentence following her conviction, but this month, District Court Judge John Koeltl, arguably on the instructions of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, resentenced her to 10 years imprisonment. The sentence was decided in spite of the fact that Stewart is 70 years old and suffers from breast cancer. Forgotten were Koeltl’s October 2006 comments, calling Lynne’s character “extraordinary,” saying she was “a credit to her profession,” and that a long imprisonment would be “an unreasonable result,” citing “the somewhat atypical nature of her case (and) lack of evidence that any victim was harmed….”
Even in India, a country which proudly regards itself as the largest democracy in the world, terrorism lawyers are harassed, threatened and treated like the enemy. There has even been extreme pressure from within the Indian legal profession itself against representing suspected terrorists. In a development of far-reaching and frightening implications for the stature of the Indian judiciary, Bar Associations in several parts of the country are effectively banning advocates from defending Muslim terror suspects. For example, following the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008, the Bombay Metropolitan Magistrate Court’s Bar Association (BMMCBA), which comprises 1060 lawyers who practice in that city’s courts, passed a resolution forbidding members from representing the only surviving member of the group involved in the Mumbai attack. Other bar associations have gone even further. After the Bar Association in Dhar passed a similar resolution, advocate Noor Mohammad was physically assaulted at the gate of the court by other lawyers to prevent him taking on the case of a Muslim accused of attending a terrorist training camp. Despite the judge’s warnings to the lawyers, the assault continued. When the judge approached the local police station, he himself was threatened. In the case of another Muslim terrorism lawyer, Mohammed Shoaib, he was assaulted by a mob of lawyers in the court and dragged out to the streets where the beating continued. In an atmosphere of racist Hindutva, any lawyer seen to be defending a Muslim terror suspect is automatically assumed to be involved in anti-Nationalist activities.
Terrorism lawyers regularly receive death threats and in some cases, the threats are acted upon. In December 2001, S.A.R. Geelani, a Delhi university lecturer, was sentenced to death after being convicted for his suspected involvement in the 2001 parliament attack. Some two years later, he was acquitted by the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court upheld its decision in August 2005. In February 2005, Geelani was shot at by unidentified men outside his lawyer Nandita Haksar’s home. Fortunately, Geelani survived. Since that shootout, Haksar says she has been boycotted in her neighbourhood who fear being associated with her. Whether Geelani’s assailants were agents of the state or not has not been confirmed. But terrorism lawyers in India have claimed that they are also monitored by the state security services. Trideep Pais recalls how during one trial, he was required to provide additional personal details to the hotel he checked in, how an officer was posted at reception and how details of guests who visited him were noted down, which thwarted his efforts to get local assistance when fighting the lawsuit, which he ultimately lost.
In February 2010, the full horrors of such intimidation came to be realised in a case with frightening parallels to that of Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane. Shahid Azmi, lawyer for Fahim Ansari, accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was gunned down in his home by unidentified gunmen.
Azmi had become a victim of the same climate of hate which led to the murder of Rosemary Nelson. It appears that very few lessons have been learned by the state from the murder of Rosemary Nelson and an identical atmosphere of prejudice continues to fester today. The brutal consequences of a mentality which refuses to distinguish a lawyer from his clients remains with us and is a stain upon the principles of due process and the rule of law. How many more lawyers will be “legitimized as targets” before the madness ends?
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)