Newsletter VII January 21, 2002

January 21, 2002




Richard Gibbs Q.C. left January 10th for Kuala Lumpur to attend the January 14-18 2002 trial of lawyer Karpal Singh, charged with sedition based on words he spoke in court while defending his client, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on criminal charges. Mr. Singh’s trial had previously been adjourned 3 times: July 2000, May 2001 and October 2001. David Gibbons Q.C. and Richard Fowler were to attend to hold a watching brief of Mr. Singh’s trial both in July 2000 and May 2001.

On October 16, 2001 counsel representing the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, (BHRC), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Western Australia Bar were already in Kuala Lumpur when the adjournment occurred. Richard Gibbs QC, who had planned to attend the second week of the October trial, had not yet left B.C. when the adjournment was granted. Counsel attending for the BHRC reported that after Mr. Singh made an application to have the foreign lawyer-observers on record, counsel retired to the judge’s chambers. Upon their return to the courtroom it was announced that the trial had been adjourned by agreement to January 14, 2002.

Richard attended Mr. Singh’s trial as a representative of LRWC, the Law Society of BC and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Law Society of B.C. each adopted in the fall of 2001, resolutions requesting Richard to report to them on the independence of the Bar and the Judiciary in Malaysia and on the fairness of the sedition trial of Karpal Singh.

On January 14 2002, after much argument about the status of both Malaysian and foreign observers, Malaysia’s new Attorney General Datuk Gani Patail (previously the lead prosecutor in PP v. Anwar Ibrahim) announced that the sedition charge was being withdrawn! The Attorney General’s statement began by acknowledging that the office of the Public Prosecutor had “received numerous representations from domestic and international legal bodies…seeking a reconsideration of the pending charge…”The Attorney General concluded by saying that after reconsidering the representations, the public interest and ‘circumstances’ he was withdrawing the charge against Mr. Singh.

To our knowledge ‘representations from international legal bodies’ refers to two legal analyses: Michael Birnbaum QC & James Laddie, “Re Karpal Singh, An Opinion” (2000) written for BHRC and G. Davidson, T. Friesen & M. Jackson, “Lawyers and the Rule of Law on Trial: Sedition in Malaysia” (2000) for LRWC.

The continuing willingness of LRWC and other international lawyers groups to send lawyers to monitor and report on the trial may well have been one of the ‘circumstances’ that resulted in the sedition charge being withdrawn.


While in Kuala Lumpur Richard met with the Canadian High Commissioner and Malaysian lawyers. Proposals that lawyers in Malaysia either form a group to work with LRWC on campaigns involving lawyers under attack in ASEAN countries or form a Lawyers Rights Watch Malaysia were met with interest. While Richard will do some follow-up correspondence on this initiative, as the new President of the Law Society, he will have no time to continue the follow-up that will be necessary to develop the initiative.

Members interested in doing follow-up on this idea please indicate your interest to


On October 19, 2001, leading human rights lawyer 38 year old Digna Ochoa y Placido was murdered. Ms Ochoa had won international acclaim for her work with PRODH (“Centro de Derechos Humanos ‘Miguel Agustin de Juarez’”), an independent human rights organization which, since 1995, had been the target of acts of harassment, violence and intimidation. Ms Ochoa represented some of the most difficult and politically charged human rights cases in Mexico, many of them involving allegations of torture and murder by Mexico’s military and security forces. Her killers left a death threat warning other human rights defenders against continuing their human rights work.

“If you continue, this will also happen to another. You have been advised. This is not a trick.”

Digna Ochoa, who worked with PRODH as a legal advisor, was the subject of abduction, death threats and physical violence, all apparently in response to her representation of individuals involved in the Zapatista insurgency and most recently, her representation of two prominent peasant ecologists in conflict with logging groups – Teodoro Cabrera and Rodolfo Montiel.

Human Rights Organizations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights acknowledge that Digna Ochoa was murdered because of her human rights work.

The history of efforts to ensure Digna Ochoa’s safety indicate the terrible danger that still faces Mexican lawyers defending or prosecuting politically sensitive cases.

  • November 11, 1999: After the persistent failure of Mexican authorities to make any significant advances into the investigation of prior threats and assaults on Digna Ochoa, or to take measures to protect the staff of PRODH, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, (IACHR) asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest- level human rights body of the Organization of the American States, to order the Mexican State (which accepted the jurisdiction of the Court in December ,1998) to “adopt, without delay, all measures necessary” to protect the life and safety of Digna Ochoa and others with PRODH and to investigate the acts for the purpose of discovering those responsible and punishing them. These steps were taken pursuant to Article 63(2) of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 25(1) of the Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which provide that “ in cases of extreme gravity and urgency, and when necessary to avoid irreparable damage to persons the court may, at the request of a party, or on its own motion, order whatever provisional measures it deems appropriate.”
  • November 17, 1999: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights made the order sought. The order was based on evidence of the Aug. 9, 1999, kidnapping and physical assault of Digna Ochoa. (This included several prior and subsequent written death and bomb threats shown by the evidence to be connected to such kidnapping). While in her home, Digna was assaulted, held captive and subjected to prolonged interrogation about the activities of PRODH. She was then left, tied to her bed beside a gas valve which had been opened by her attackers in an attempt to asphyxiate her. That same night, PRODH offices were broken into and ransacked.
  • August of 2000, Digna Ochoa moved to Washington, in fear for her security. There she worked for the Center for Justice and International Law. Digna Ochoa returned to Mexico City in early May 2001 to continue her defense work.
  • May 2001: The Federal Attorney General advised Ms Ochoa that the investigation into her case had been suspended and the Mexican government applied to the IACHR for leave to remove the protective measures on the grounds that they were no longer needed as no threats had occurred during the period of protection.
  • August 2001: This application, apparently unopposed, was granted.
  • October 22, 2001: The IACHR petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to direct the Mexican government to adopt the measures necessary to protect the lives of Ms Ochoa’s colleagues Barbara Zamora, Pilar Noriega and other members of PRODH and to investigate the facts and punish those responsible for the threats and the murder. On November 16 2001 Jesus Ochoa, for the family of Digna Ochoa and the original petitioners (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Center for Justice and International Law and the National Human Rights Network) proposed that the IACHR offer technical cooperation to the Federal District’ Attorney General’s Office (PGJDF) to strengthen the investigation. This proposal has been accepted by the government of Mexico and implementation by the IACHR was pending as of November 23, 2001. PRODH reports that this agreement implies the contracting of an international expert on criminal investigations of human rights violations.
  • October 25 2001 The President of the Court issued a resolution that Mexico is bound by the American Convention on Human Rights, (ACHR) Article 1.1 to respect the rights and liberties recognized in the IACHR and to guarantee their application. The Court ordered Mexico to immediately implement all measures necessary to protect the life and personal integrity of PRODH members and the named lawyers and to conduct full investigations leading to the prosecution and punishment of those responsible.
  • November 30, 2001: The Court issued a resolution confirming the one issued by the President on October 25, 2001 and extending the protections to members of Digna’s immediate family.

LRWC response to date:

  • Research and preparation of a summary of the facts and legal proceeding relevant to Ms. Ochoa’s murder and a backgrounder.
  • Letters in English and Spanish to Mexican government officials and departments,
  • Correspondence with PRODH and with human rights organizations involved in supporting PRODH.
  • Preparation and distribution of English and Spanish language press releases. (Spanish language translation of press release thanks to Joyce Statton)
  • Newspaper article published in The Lawyers Weekly (Stephen Jacob, “World Responds to Murder of Civil Rights Lawyer” The Lawyers Weekly Vol. 21, No. 30, December 7, 2001.)
  • Attempted to facilitate letter writing by other organizations by BHRC and the International Law subsection of the Canadian Bar Association by providing these two groups with the materials and contact lists prepared by LRWC. (In furtherance of LRWC’s goal of resource sharing and working in cooperation with other human rights groups)


The Singapore High Court in a judgement delivered Friday January 18/01 barred internationally known trial lawyer Stuart Littlemore Q.C.from defending a defamation suit against opposition leader Chee Soon Juan saying Mr. Littlemore “lacks decency” and is “not a suitable person”! The plaintiffs Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, suit against Chee, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, is based on remarks Chee is alleged to have made before the November 2001 general elections. In l997, Mr. Littlemore monitored the trial of a defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Goh and other officials against another leading opposition Member of Parliament and lawyer, J. B. Jeyaretnam for the International Commission of Jurists. Littlemore’s report criticized the Singapore judiciary of lacking independence from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). LRWC member/director Howard Rubin, as a joint representative of LRWC and Amnesty International, attended Jeyaretnam’s final defamation appeals July 2001. The dismissal of these two appeals resulted in Mr. Jeyaretnam being barred from sitting as a Member of Parliament and from practicing law. Howard reported that because lawyers in Singapore don’t want to take on the defense of defamation suits brought by members of the ruling party, it is next to impossible for an opposition party defendant to be properly defended.
LRWC member/director Paul Copeland has responded and says he would welcome the opportunity to be next in line to be declared ‘lacking in decency’ to represent Mr. Chee.



Nasser Zarafchan. Lawyer

Mr. Zzarafchan was arrested in December 2000 following publication of an article he wrote in the journal Jomhouri Eslami, and following his public expressions of concern about the December 2000 trial of the assassins of Iranian intellectuals including writer Mohammed Djafar Pouhandeh in December 1998. His trial set to proceed before a military tribunal on November 3 was postponed. LRWC (Catherine Morris of Vancouver) wrote expressing the concern that Mr. Zarafchan appeared to have been targeted for speaking out in favour of internationally recognized human rights. Catherine’s letter also urged the government of Iran to ensure that the trial of Mr. Zarafchan is fair, impartial and in accordance with the international standards to which Iran subscribes.


Digna Ochoa

LRWC (Brenda Wemp of Vancouver) wrote letters to Mexican government officials stating that the failure to protect and investigate violations of the rights of Ms Ochao and other lawyers constituted the most egregious breaches of Mexico’s duties under binding international laws and principles. LRWC also urged compliance with the orders of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and with Mexico’s international obligations to provide adequate security to lawyers and other human rights defenders and to conduct adequate investigations and prosecutions of Ms. Ochoa’s murder.

Pilar Noriega and Barbara Zamora

Pilar Noriega and Barbara Zamora, colleagues of Digna Ochoa had received threats in addition to the note left at the scene of Digna Ochoa’s murder.

LRWC wrote letters outlining Mexico’s national, international and OAS obligations to immediately put in place permanent measures to protect the independence and security of Pilar and Barbara and all other threatened legal worker including other PRODH staff and to effectively investigate and prosecute violations.


Mohamed al Hassan Ibrahim, Omar Sidahmed, Bakri Gibreil, Jalal Mohamed al Said, Nasr Aldeen Yousef, Haydar (released November 2) Adil Mohamed. (released November 17) Yousef Hussein, Abbas Mohamed al Tahir, (still in custody December 7)

Nine lawyers were arrested and held in custody without charge and there were some reports of torture during their detention. Seven were release subject to onerous daily reporting and then were subjected to harassment. The whereabouts of the remaining two lawyers was unknown. LRWC (Catherine Morris of Vancouver) wrote letters to the Sudan government requesting the government of Sudan to ensure no further ill-treatment of the lawyers and to take immediate steps to investigate the allegations of torture. A reply from the office of the Sudan Ambassador to Canada did not appear to address any of the issues raised.


Riad al-Turk

Lawyer Riad al-Turk, a leading activist/lawyer was arrested without charge on September 1, 2001. He had previously been detained from 1980 to 1998 and was during that detention, declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International as being detained solely for his peaceful opposition activities. LRWC (Constance Marlatt of Toronto) wrote asking Syria to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Riad al-Turk and to allow him immediate access to a lawyer, proper medical attention and his family.