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Helsinki Commission Hearing Announced: “Protection of Human Rights Advocates in Northern Ireland”

WASHINGTON — The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe today announces a forthcoming hearing:

Protection of Human Rights Advocates in Northern Ireland
Tuesday, March 14
10:00 a.m.—1:00 p.m.
Room 2255 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC
Open to Members, Staff, Press and the Public

Scheduled to testify are:

Eunan Magee, brother of slain defense attorney Rosemary Nelson
Geraldine Finucane, widow of slain defense attorney Patrick Finucane
Paul Mageean, Legal Officer, Committee on the Administration of Justice, Belfast
Jane Winter, Director, British Irish Rights Watch
Representative from Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

Other witnesses have been invited.

Background: Since the early 1990s, human rights groups have documented a pattern of abuse by Northern Ireland’s police force—the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)—against defense lawyers representing those charged with political offenses in Northern Ireland.

On March 15, 1999, human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was killed by a car bomb outside her home in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Before her death, Nelson reported being harassed and intimidated by the RUC.

At a congressional hearing in September 1998, she reported that this harassment, at its worst, included death threats against her.

The Commission’s hearing—which will occur one day before the first anniversary of Rosemary Nelson’s brutal murder—will focus on the continued harassment of human rights advocates in Northern Ireland and the efforts, if any, of the British Government to prevent such acts or to hold accountable those who employ intimidation or violence to silence Northern Ireland’s human rights advocates and attorneys.

Ten years before Nelson’s slaying, defense attorney Patrick Finucane was also murdered in his home under circumstances suggesting the involvement of police and other government agents. After a fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers found that “the RUC has engaged in activities which constitute intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” with defense attorneys.

The Special Rapporteur described these activities as “consistent and systematic.” Numerous calls for independent judicial inquiries into the circumstances surrounding Finucane and Nelson’s murders—including legislation (H.Res. 128) passed by the House of Representatives—have gone unheeded by the British Government.

OSCE commitments affirm that, where violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms are alleged to have occurred, individuals have a right to seek and receive adequate legal assistance, to seek and receive assistance from others in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to assist others in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Notwithstanding these commitments, human rights advocates, including attorneys, in Northern Ireland endure harassment, intimidation, and violence as a result of their efforts to protect human rights and fulfill their professional obligations to defend their clients’ rights.

There are particularly troubling indications of official collusion in acts of violence against Northern Ireland’s human rights advocates.

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