Green MP and lawyer Golriz Ghahraman entered the age-old area of being criticised for representing “guilty” parties with criticism leveled at her by former Labour Party staffer Phil Quinn who criticised the new MP over the ‘moral and conscious’ choice’ in who she defended.
The MP rejected accusations she is a “genocide denier” after Quinn released a picture of her as a UN intern posing with Hutu pop singer Simon Bikindi.
Bikindi was convicted of direct and public incitement to commit genocide and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.
Ghahraman volunteered to work in Rwanda as part of her UN human rights law work where she helped in the defense of those involved in the appalling slaughtere of over 800,000 Tutsis.
Included in the issue involving the young MP is a picture of her posing with one convicted of inciting genocide, being Simon Bikindi.
It is clear, notwithstanding the lawyers leaping to her defence, including the Law Society, that Ghahraman was hardly transparent regarding her work for the UN, and failed to mention her contribution to the defence of war criminals in her maiden speech or in her Greens profile, which has since been amended to expressly detail her legal defence work for UN tribunals.
It was a picture and a Herald article that has caused embarrassment for the Green MP whose small role in the defense of war criminals has seen such posed shots and embellishment of the facts as a source of some concern.
As columnist Barry Soper noted, the Greens have circled the wagons to defend what she said –
In the latest batch of fudge delivered she was asked whether she’d ever posed with a war criminal, she stammered before saying, no, but admitting to a defence photo with her team in court, saying everybody did. She said it’d be bizarre to say you’d go off as an intern and refuse to sit with you team in a photo.
Well a series of photos have been sent to me, one showing her posing alone with a former pop singer called Simon Bikindi who was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for incitement to commit genocide. He was found guilty after exhorting, over a public address system, his fellow Hutus to exterminate all the Tutsis whom he referred to as snakes.
Ghahraman has been defended by the Law Society and criticised by others, including by outspoken broadcaster Mike Hosking.
Otago law professor Andrew Geddis noted that the criticism of Ghahraman was unfair.
To then thoroughly damn a 25-year-old Ghahraman for helping to write a speculative academic paper, largely on the basis of the findings of a report that came out four years later, seems remarkably churlish. And to label it as some sort of apology for genocide or giver of comfort to those who committed genocide is simply preposterous.
The right to a lawyer is a fundamental part of our justice system and any criticism of lawyers for defending people charged with heinous crimes is not acceptable, the New Zealand Law Society announced in a statement from President Kathryn Beck.
“The current comments on Green MP Golriz Ghahraman appear to be over her alleged failure to state that she had both defended and prosecuted people charged with war crimes,” Law Society President Kathryn Beck says.
“Some coverage has, however, also seemed to imply that there is something wrong in a lawyer acting for a person who is being tried for serious crimes.
“It is natural that people might be angry and distressed by such cases and the perpetrators, but it is totally wrong to identify the lawyer with the client’s actions.”
Defence lawyer and convenor of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, Steve Bonnar QC, says there is often misunderstanding of the role of a lawyer.
“Our law requires lawyers to uphold the rule of law and to facilitate the administration of justice in New Zealand. The general rule is that lawyers must be available to act for the public and must not, without good cause, refuse to accept instructions from any client or prospective client for services within that lawyer’s fields of practice.
“Therefore, often a lawyer does not have a choice as to what cases to accept. The personal attributes of the prospective client and the merits of the matter upon which the lawyer is consulted are not considered good cause for refusing to accept instructions.”
Mr Bonnar says the rules of Conduct and Client Care which bind all lawyers say that as far as possible, the defence lawyer must protect the client from being convicted.
“The defence lawyer is required to put the prosecution to proof in obtaining a conviction, regardless of any personal belief or opinion of the lawyer as to the client’s guilt or innocence. It is not the role of the lawyer to determine a client’s guilt or innocence – that is the role of the Tribunal, Judge or jury hearing the case,” he says.
“New Zealand is fortunate to have a strong and dedicated community of lawyers who are available to defend anyone, no matter what they are accused of. It would be of great concern if the essential job they do came under attack.”