On 24 January the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) is proud to be taking part in the 11th annual Day of the Endangered Lawyer (DOTEL). I am an Executive Committee member of BHRC, and the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH, in 21 countries), of which I am President, has been a co-organiser of the event from the start. This year we are focusing on Azerbaijan, and the Petition which will be delivered to the embassies of Azerbaijan all over Europe, has been drafted by ELDH General Secretary Thomas Schmidt, with lawyers in Azerbaijan, and the Coalition for the Endangered Lawyers with 36 lawyers organisations and bar associations. In previous years we focused on China, Colombia, Egypt, Honduras, Iran, Pakistan, The Philippines, Spain/Basque Country, Turkey and Pakistan.

On 21 January I am participating on behalf of BHRC in the seminar organised by the Law Society, with ELDH and others.

Why 24 January? This is the date in 1977, two years after Franco’s death, of the Atocha Massacre. Three men, neofascist extremists, entered a legal support office for workers at 55 Atocha Street in central Madrid and opened fire on everyone there. Those murdered were three labour lawyers, a law student and an administrative assistant. Four others were severely wounded. This massacre was a turning point in the consolidation of Spain’s return from Franco’s fascism to democracy, and there are now 25 streets and squares in Madrid dedicated to the victims of the massacre.

To Azerbaijan’s shame, many lawyers who represent victims and speak out about torture and ill-treatment in police custody have themselves been victims of serious human rights violations.

On 24 January the organisers of DOTEL ask their international colleagues to 1) raise awareness about the number of lawyers who are harassed, silenced, pressurised, threatened, persecuted and in some countries tortured and murdered for their work as lawyers; and 2) initiate or further develop a national discussion about ways to protect lawyers.

Why Azerbaijan this year?

Despite the fact that since independence in 1991 Azerbaijan has become a member of the Council of Europe and has ratified the ECHR and other human rights treaties, it has a shocking record of human rights violations highlighted in many judgments of the Strasbourg Court. To Azerbaijan’s shame, many lawyers who represent victims and speak out about torture and ill-treatment in police custody have themselves been victims of serious human rights violations.

In 2017 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concern that lawyers representing victims at Strasbourg had been disbarred and in some cases detained. These concerns have also been voiced by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and other international bodies and NGOs. In 2020 the Law Society and Lawyers for Lawyers reported that Azerbaijan had failed to honour commitments it made in 2018 to the UN to protect lawyers.

Indeed, in 2018 Azerbaijan enacted legislation to prevent well-known human rights lawyers from practising. One of five lawyers already excluded is the advocate Emin Abbasov, who is speaking at the Law Society seminar on 21 January, and who helped draft the Petition.

Details of the Law Society seminar marking the Day of the Endangered Lawyer 2021 can be found here.

Details and resources for the Day of the Endangered Lawyer can be found here.

This year’s petition can be accessed here.

Professor Bill Bowring is a barrister and BHRC Executive Committee Member and President of the European Lawyers for Democrac
y and Human Rights. He teaches human rights and international law at Birkbeck College, University of London. As a practising barrister since 1974, he has represented applicants before the European Court of Human Rights in many cases since 1992, especially against Turkey and Russia.

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