As we celebrate International Human Rights Day, we are also reminded of the work that human rights defenders do to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable are protected, and this includes the rights of those who find themselves within the criminal justice system.
Defence lawyers play a vital and irreplaceable role in the promotion and protection of human rights. The right to fair trial is fundamental to any democratic society, without the full enjoyment of this right the rule of law itself is meaningless, and without dedicated public defenders fully committed to the de-fence of their clients it is unattainable.
In January of this year, UNODC supported the deployment of 31 Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) defence lawyers to the Joint Investigation Centre (JIC) detention facility in Maiduguri to conduct pre-trial interviews of terrorism suspects and to ensure their constitutional right to a fair trial. This resulted in LACON being granted access to 314 detainees.
As Mr. Abdulfattah Bakre, LACON’s Deputy Director Criminal Litigation, subsequently observed: ”The pre-trial interview exercise has in no small measure given meaning to the constitution-al rights of the defendants by giving adequate time to prepare for their defence, thereby enhancing the right to a fair trial, and ensuring the credibility of the upcoming hearings.”
Ensuring that terrorists are brought to justice can present many challenges. Investigators are often placed under tremendous pressure to get results, and in such circumstances it is all too easy to make mistakes.
A strong commitment to the application of the rule of law and adherence to the fundamental principles of human rights provides powerful protection from such mistakes leading to miscarriages of justice. When the wrong person is convicted, two wrongs are committed, an innocent person’s life is ruined, and a guilty one is left to offend again.
Fraser Hirst, the UNODC expert delivering the training, took care to highlight the importance of ensuring that a gender perspective forms part of an effective counterterrorism response. Account must be taken of the multifaceted and distinct ways that women and men are involved in and are impacted by terrorist acts and counter terrorism responses.
Hirst noted that “many women caught up in the justice system may effectively be victims who are being re-victimized and re-traumatised by the system and the process, even if, on the face of it, they may appear to have committed an offence under the TPA as amended.”
The training covered a variety of human rights-related topics with participants drawn from different parts of the country.