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Day of the Endangered Lawyer

January 19, 2021

The Day of the Endangered Lawyer is commemorated on January 24 of each year, and calls attention to the plight of lawyers, paralegals and other human rights defenders around the world who face persecution, physical danger and reprisals for defending and advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable individuals and communities around the world.

On January 24, 1977, four trade union lawyers and an employee were murdered in their office in Madrid simply for doing their job.  Spain at that time was in the process of transitioning to a democracy following Francisco Franco’s death, a dictator who had ruled Spain for four decades.

However, the commemorative occasion was taken on a global scale only in 2010. After a fact-finding mission to the Philippines in 1990, where they witnessed members of the legal professions being threatened, intimated and murdered, Dutch nationals Hans Gaasbeek and Symone Gaasbeek-Wielinga, sought to rally like-minded lawyers and legal organizations in advocating for their endangered colleagues around the world.  This led to the formation of the Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation, directed by Mr. Gaasbeek, and to the annual commemoration of the Day of the Endangered Lawyer.

Today, the day is observed by numerous bar associations, individual and human rights organizations around the world.  Each year, commemorations focus on the plight of lawyers in a single country.  In past years, the following countries and regions were highlighted: China, Colombia, Egypt, Honduras, Iran, the Philippines, Spain/Basque Country, Turkey and Pakistan.

This year’s focus is Azerbaijan. International bodies like the United Nations and the Council of Europe, as well as non-governmental organizations have noted a continuation of serious human rights violations since Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  In its 2020 report, the European Court of Human Rights noted that Azerbaijan was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, which it ratified in 2002, including: inhumane or degrading treatment (Article 3), arbitrary detention (Article 5), right to a fair trial (Article 6.1), freedom of expression cases (Article 10), freedom of assembly and association (Article 11), property rights (Article 1 of Protocol No. 1), right to free elections (Article 3 of Protocol No. 1). In its 2019 report, Human Rights Watch has also documented the state attacks on the judiciary and on the detention and disbarring of members of the legal professions.  

Members of the legal professions, judges and human rights advocates residing and operating in Azerbaijan have been subjected to life-threatening situations, torture and ill-treatment in police custody. In addition, a series of laws that came into effect in 2018, have been abused by the state-controlled Azerbaijan Bar Association to prevent prominent human rights lawyers from exercising their profession.  The UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted in its 2017 report, that lawyers in Azerbaijan who assisted in bringing the cases of human rights defenders to the European Court of Human Rights had been disbarred or even detained on various charges. In addition, as noted by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in her 2019 report, disciplinary proceedings are being used as a tool to punish lawyers who take on sensitive cases.

In 2019, the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute co-signed an open letter, which condemned the punishment of a human rights lawyer by the Azerbaijani Bar Association, and called on authorities to comply with international standards on the protection of the legal profession. Similar calls have been made by the Coalition for the Endangered Lawyers, of which Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada is a participating member.

To learn more about the challenges faced by members of the legal professions in Azerbaijan, you may wish to register for this online event, co-hosted by the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights, Lawyers for Lawyers, Deutscher AnwaltVerein (the German Bar Association), and the Law Society of England and Wales, on January 21, 2021.

The Law Society of Ontario joins with the international human rights community to acknowledge and denounce the treatment of members of the legal profession and judiciary in Azerbaijan. Intimidation, harassment, persecution, and violence against members of the legal professions and human rights advocates undermines the rule of law in their home countries and beyond.

The Law Society of Ontario is committed to maintaining and advancing access to justice and the rule of law.  Through its Human Rights Monitoring Group, the Law Society has intervened in over 220 cases in more than 55 countries around the world. On Azerbaijan alone, the Law Society has issued 2 letters of intervention and public statements.

The Law Society biennially hosts a public event to commemorate the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, and the next presentation will take place in January 2022.

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