A Vile and Shameless Attack on Golriz Ghahraman

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am proud of many of my former students, but the one I am most proud of is Golriz Ghahraman, who took my international criminal law course many years ago at the University of Auckland and is still a dear friend. In the years since my course, Golriz has worked on the Karadzic case, earned an MSt in human rights from Oxford, served as a prosecutor at the Cambodia tribunal, and developed a glittering legal practice representing the powerless and disenfranchised in New Zealand. Most impressive of all, though, just a few weeks ago Golriz became the first refugee MP in New Zealand history — she and her family fled Iran when she was a young girl — as a member of the Green Party.

Golriz’s success is a tribute to hard work and commitment, and I can only imagine how inspirational her story must be for refugees and women in New Zealand and elsewhere. Which is why I am furious — absolutely furious — about an attack on Golriz written by “a former Labour staffer in New Zealand and Australia” named Phil Quin that is as mendacious as it is shameless.

Golriz’s sin, in Quin’s eyes? Having the temerity to work as a defence attorney on the Nzirorera and Bikindi cases at the ICTR:

At the ICTR, a would-be New Zealand politician decided to use a year in Africa to volunteer as an intern for the defence team. Golriz Ghahraman was not one of the 200 lawyers appointed by the UN. Her presence was voluntary. The ICTR was famously cashed up — it cost more than US$2 billion to secure only 61 convictions. Since recent publicity of Ghahraman’s time in Rwanda, one argument waged at me  —  that defendants deserve a lawyer — is a shameless red herring. Nobody is disputing this, least of all me, but the notion Ghahraman’s skills were needed when there were more than three high-end, properly accredited, lawyers for each one of the accused is beyond a joke. It was work experience.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with work experience, and internships are a good way to broaden one’s horizons. But I am deeply troubled by how Ghahraman chose to spend her time dealing with the aftermath of the genocide. The entire ICTR defence was predicated on a revisionist account of what happened in 1994 — one that posits the victims as perpetrators — and it is incredible that someone as smart as Ghahraman didn’t know that going into the role.

It’s one thing for a UN defence lawyer to be assigned to defend ratbags. It’s quite another to seek them out in a voluntary capacity. (Apparently she went on the payroll three months in).

The ignorance of Quin’s argument — here and in the rest of the article — is breathtaking. Let’s start with his basic factual errors. First, there is no such thing as a “UN” defence attorney. As the ICTR’s own website notes, “Defence counsels at the ICTR are not part of the institutional structure but rather paid as independent contractors, traveling to Arusha as necessary for their case.”

Second, 200 lawyers were not “appointed” by the UN. That number refers to the ICTR list of qualified lawyers from which defendants could choose counsel.

Third, no lawyer was ever “assigned” to a case against his or her will. Each and every lawyer who worked on a case at the ICTR “sought [the case] out in a voluntary capacity.”

Fourth, there is no such thing as an “ICTR defence,” much less one that was “entirely” about blaming the Tutsi for bringing on the genocide themselves. Each defendant had his own argument for why he or she should be acquitted.

Bikindi’s argument, which Golriz helped develop as one of his lawyers, was that he did not conspire to commit genocide, that he did not commit genocide, that he was not complicit in genocide, that he did not incite genocide, that he did not kill as a crime against humanity, and that he did not persecute as a crime against humanity. And guess what? The Trial Chamber unanimously acquitted Bikindi on every charge other than incitement.

Quin conveniently fails to mention that the Trial Chamber agreed with Bikindi that the other charges had no merit. So when he says — with regard to the genocide deniers’ “twisted view of history” — that “[w]ittingly or not, Ghahraman jumped on that bandwagon. As a public figure, she ought to be judged by such choices,” he is indicting the Trial Chamber no less than Golriz.

Golriz is not a genocide denier, of course. Golriz is a lawyer who defended an individual accused of committing horrible crimes, a necessary role for anyone who takes due process and natural justice seriously. Quin might not care about whether ICTR defendants receive fair trials, but the Tribunal itself does. As it notes on its website, “[a]s with other tribunals and courts of law, the Defence has been playing a crucial role in ICTR proceedings, upholding the principle of equality of arms and ensuring the fairness of proceedings.”

Quin’s argument, therefore, is not simply factually challenged. It is offensive. Attacking a lawyer for being willing to take on an unpopular client is beneath contempt. I expect such lawyer-baiting from the right wing, which has repeatedly attacked lawyers who defend accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. I didn’t expect it from someone who has supposedly worked for the Labour Party in Australia and New Zealand.

And, of course, I didn’t expect the attack to target Golriz, one of literally dozens of defence lawyers who have worked at the ICTR — and one who also happened to prosecute genocide in Cambodia. (An inconvenient fact Quin also somehow failed to mention.) For some reason, of all those attorneys — which include more than a few Aussies and Kiwis — Quin finds only one worthy of attack: the female refugee MP from the Green Party. I wonder why that is?

I am furious. If you are too, let Newsroom know what you think of its decision to print Quin’s baseless attacks. Newsroom’s Facebook page is here, and its twitter handle is @NewsroomNZ.

UPDATE: Stuff.co.nz published another attack on Golriz written by Quin. It’s basically Quin plagiarizing himself, but you can read it if you have a tough stomach.

http://opiniojuris.org/2017/11/28/a-shameless-attack-on-golriz-ghahraman/

5 Responses

  1. Ah, the old “guilt by association with their client ” trick. I have to wonder that no one ever seems to apply the same to, say, a doctor who attended him during his confinement.

  2. Phil Quin has worked and may even currently work for the Rwandan government, precisely for the President’s office and for years has been part of that governments P.R./media/online attack strategy. This is well known in circles outside of N.Z. and has been for years. He even used to write similar attack pieces for The New Times in Rwanda, the Government Supporting Daily. HE IS HORRENDOUSLY CONFLICTED AND NOT CREDIBLE. HE IS A PAID SHRILL.

    For e.g.: http://digitaldjeli.com/2012/amnesty-international-denounces-use-of-torture-in-rwandan-military-detention-rwandan-pr-reacts/

  3. Quin’s attack on Ghahraman is classic Rwandan PR strategy which he practiced and honed while working for that government’s PR department: attack any critics of the regime with claims of genocide denial, cower them into submission and hope that eventually they will resign.

    The mistake that he made this time round is that he did so in a country that demands accountability for baseless claims and character assassination. In a country that wasn’t going to take this sitting down. He also made the claims against a lawyer who is backed by a legal fraternity that sure knows everything about character defamation. They have all the time, patience and resources to take Quin down in the courts. How dumb can one be? He’s since had to issue a half-witted apology to Ghahraman on Twitter and retract his “genocide denier” claims.

    The fact is, the Rwandan regime is increasingly being called to account for its human rights abuses. Mr. Quin should act now and reexamine his support of this regime and his career in mercenary penmanship. Act now before you have to face the consequences of a tattered reputation!

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  1. […] Worth reading a post by a international criminal law academic Kevin Jon Heller A Vile and Shameless Attack on Golriz Ghahraman in http://opiniojuris.org/. My favourite bit which completely undercuts one of Phil Quin’s […]

  2. […] at Opinio Juris, Kevin Jon Heller points out that of all the defense counsel who have served at the ICTR, “Quin finds only one worthy of […]