The ICJ appeals to Syrian President in case of persecuted lawyer

Today the ICJ sent an intervention to President Bashar al-Assad regarding the trial of a lawyer, Habib Issa, before the State Security Court.

The ICJ addressed a previous intervention on behalf of Mr Issa (photo) in September 2001 when he was arrested for his representation of a well-known political opponent to the President, Riad Seif. The ICJ condemns this trial as the State Security Court is neither independent nor impartial and does not afford an opportunity of review.

The transcript of this intervention follows:

29 July 2002

H.E. Mr Bashar al-Assad
President of Syrian Arab Republic
Presidential Palace
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic

Dear Sir,

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) consists of jurists who represent all the regions and legal systems in the world working to uphold the Rule of Law and the legal protection of human rights. The ICJ’s Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers (CIJL), is dedicated to promoting the independence of judges and lawyers throughout the world.

This is a follow-up letter to the one we sent you on 28 September 2001 regarding Mr Habib Issa, a Syrian lawyer defending opposition activist and Parliamentarian Riad Seif. Mr Issa, who is also the spokesperson of the Gamal Al-Attasy Forum for Democratic Dialogue and a member of the Human Rights Association, was arrested by Syrian security agents on 12 September 2001 and taken to Adra Prison where he is still held. Mr Issa was allegedly arrested because of his representation of Mr Seif.

We understand that Mr Issa’s trial before the Supreme State Security Court will be on 29 July 2002. He is charged with several offenses as follows:

1. Attempting to change the constitution by illegal means
2. Inciting racial and sectarian strife
3. Dissemination of false information with the aim of weakening the spirit of the nation and harming the dignity of the State
4. Delivering speeches with the aim of stirring armed disobedience against the authorities.

We would like to respectfully remind you that the 1990 United Nations Principles on the Role of Lawyers require that governments guarantee lawyers the right to be free from harassment while carrying out their duties (Principle 16). These principles make it clear that “Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.” (Principle 18). As these rules make clear, Mr Issa should not have been identified with his client, Mr Riaf, and should not have been imprisoned for undertaking this representation.

We also bring to your attention that pursuant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), Mr Issa’s trial before the Supreme State Security Court constitutes a violation of his fundamental human right to a fair trial which includes the right to be heard by an independent and impartial tribunal.

Syria acceded to the CCPR in 1969. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets and defines the provisions of the CCPR, has consistently held that state security courts do not afford a fair trial as they are neither independent nor impartial. The concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee of 24/04/2001, on the Syrian Arab Republic (CCPR/CO/71/SYR, par. 16) state that,

In the Committee’s view, the procedures of the State Security Court are incompatible with the provisions of article 14, paragraphs 1, 3 and 5. The public nature of proceedings before the State Security Court is not guaranteed. The Committee is also concerned about allegations, to which the delegation did not respond, that the Court has rejected complaints of torture, even in flagrant cases, and that some legal representatives have withdrawn in protest against the failure to respect the rights of the defence. Moreover, the Committee notes that the State Security Court’s decisions are not subject to appeal.

>i>The State party should ensure that the procedures of the State Security Court scrupulously respect the provisions of article 14, paragraphs 1 and 3, of the Covenant and should grant accused persons the right to appeal against the Court’s decisions (article 14, paragraph 5, of the Covenant).

Article 14 (1) of the CCPR states that, “In the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law…(emphasis added).”

Article 14(3) requires that fair trial standards be respected (right to be informed of charges promptly, right to counsel of one’s choosing, right to be tried without undue delay, etc.). Article 14(5) provides that, “Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.” (emphasis added)

In its response to the Committee’s observations regarding State Security Courts, Syria rejected the findings of the Committee (CCPR/CO/71/Add.1/ Concluding observations/Comments). It did not specifically address the lack of independence or impartiality of these courts however. Vis-à-vis the right to appeal a decision of the State Security Court, Syria stated that Article 8 of its Code of Criminal Procedure establishing the higher State Security Court “stipulates that the decisions handed down by this Court are not enforceable until they have been ratified by a decree promulgated by the President of the country, who has the right to annul a decision and order a retrial or closure of the case or reduce or commute the penalty…Such Presidential decrees are final and not subject to any form of appeal or review (paragraphs 26, 27).

We respectfully remind you that a Presidential decree is not a proper and legal substitute for a court of appeal. We reiterate that pursuant to Article 14(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it is higher tribunals that must review sentences by lower courts and not the Executive.

We also respectfully remind you that the use of the Syrian State Security Courts to try lawyers violates the 1990 United Nations Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which require that,

27…. Lawyers shall have the right to a fair hearing…

28. Disciplinary proceedings against lawyers shall be brought before an impartial disciplinary committee established by the legal profession, before an independent statutory authority, or before a court, and shall be subject to an independent judicial review.

The problem of the lack of independence and impartiality of the Syrian Supreme State Security Courts is exacerbated by the fact that they do not afford defendants the chance for review by a higher tribunal. We therefore respectfully request that Mr Issa be immediately released and that any subsequent judicial process which may be brought against this lawyer conform to international human rights standards.

Yours faithfully,

Louise Doswald-Beck

cc: Mr Nabil al-Khatib
Minister of Justice
Al-Nasr Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: 00 963 11 224 62 50

cc: Mr Muhammad Harba
Minister of Interior
Merjeh Circle
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: 00 963 11 222 34 28

cc: Mr Nasser Qaddur
State Minister for Foreign Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: 00 963 311 332 06 86

cc: H.E. Ambassador Dr. Toufika Salloum
Permanent Mission of Syrian Arab Republic
to the UN Office in Geneva
Rue de Lausanne 72
1202 Geneva

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