Liz Davies' article on The DHRD conference from the Morning Star, Tuesday 14th February 2012

Human rights lawyers in Britain may face the scorn of the Daily Mail and David Cameron, but we don't get killed for our activities.

Elsewhere in the world the decision to devote one's professional skills to the defence of human rights means taking real risks - putting life, liberty, family and livelihoods on the line.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) in the Philippines is committed to using legal strategies to stand up for the marginalised and oppressed - rural communities, workers, fishing communities, the urban poor, indigenous communities, political groups and human rights defenders.

They are currently representing the families of two "disappeared" students.

Part of that process has involved issuing a warrant for the arrest of retired major general Jovito Palparan, a fugitive who is avoiding prosecution and shielded by the authorities. They represent the Morong 43 - health workers who, while carrying out medical training, were accused of being members of the New People's Army, arrested and detained in appalling conditions for 10 months without any trial. They are still fighting to clear their names.

An accusation that human rights defenders are really terrorists is just one of the weapons used by repressive states to silence their critics.

But the NUPL finds itself defending its own members as well as its clients.

Twenty-seven lawyers have been killed extra-judicially since January 2001.

Attorney Juvy Magsino of Mindoro, a vocal advocate against military abuses and mining projects, was riddled with bullets while driving her car.

Attorney Tersita Vidamo was handling controversial land and labour disputes at the time she was shot.

Attorney Feldito Dacut of Leyte, lawyer for unions, was shot by armed men riding a motorcycle while he and his three-year-old daughter were on their way to buy milk.

Lawyer members of the NUPL were among the dead in the infamous Maguindanao massacre in November 2009 when 58 people including 34 journalists were killed by political opponents.

NUPL secretary-general Edre Olalia says: "In the Philippines, the security forces pound on the lawyers, especially human rights lawyers."

Colombia holds the world record for the highest number of trade unionists murdered and the Santos government continues to provide impunity for military and paramilitaries responsible for the killings.
There are hundreds of political prisoners in jail, many detained without trial.

Sociologist and trade unionist Liliany Obando has been detained since August 2008.

She is accused of "rebellion" - that is, of supporting the Farc - but her case drags on, without an opportunity for her to clear her name.

On the third anniversary of her detention she wrote from her cell: "To all the trade unions, activists for human rights, peace and social justice, the alternative media, the opposition political parties, the democratic lawyers and the parliamentarians who come together from different latitudes in the globe, in the campaign to free Colombia's political prisoners, my gratitude and affection."

David Rabelo is a leading member of the national Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) in Colombia, a human rights defender and an opposition political activist.
He has been in prison for nearly 18 months, facing politically motivated charges brought against him by a former paramilitary who stands to gain a considerable reduction in his own prison sentence.

Hadjimurat Kamalov was the editor of the independent newspaper in Dagestan, Chernovik, which translates as "freedom of speech."

The newspaper is known for its independence and investigation of corrupt local politicians. He was shot outside his offices in December.

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists described the assassination as "a lethal blow to press freedom."

Aleh Volchak, lawyer and human rights defender in Belarus, whose president describes himself as operating "an authoritarian ruling style," was detained last month in a prison outdoors in freezing-cold Minsk, charged with using offensive language and sentenced to four days' imprisonment.

His arrest took place shortly before he was due to travel abroad to an international human rights conference.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that was the purpose of the arrest.

Human rights defenders from the Philippines, Dagestan, Belarus, Colombia, Palestine, Swaziland and Syria will be coming together at an extraordinary event organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in association with Amnesty International and European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and supported by Justice for Colombia and other solidarity campaigns.

On February 24, we hold our conference on Defending Human Rights Defenders. We will consider extra-judicial killings, censorship, imprisonment and criminalisation.

The delegates will have an opportunity to share experiences and publicise their struggles. Most importantly, we will discuss how we can provide practical solidarity to all of our comrades who regularly challenge human rights abuses, and have to face the state acting with impunity.

While it is true that in mainland Britain, lawyers, journalists and other activists can stand up for human rights without fear of significant consequences, in Northern Ireland that was not the case.

We remember our comrades Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, who were murdered for the crime of representing their clients, as well as journalists and other activists who lost their lives in defence of human rights.

This conference is dedicated to their memories, as well as those we have lost around the world.

Original article published in the Morning Star, Tuesday 14 February 2012.