Legal News Round Up: September 2022
September was a remarkable month for human rights around the world; key events included the Iranian protests following Mahsa Amini’s tragic death, the EU’s persistent sanctions against Russia, and the publication of definitive evidence of China’s crimes against the Uyghurs. This month also marked significant legal developments in the UK as a new prime minister took office and as barristers’ strikes begin to take a toll on the court system. Continue reading to find out about this month’s top legal news.
The Global Repercussions of Mahsa Amini’s Death
On the 14th of September, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, died in police custody after she was arrested by the morality police in Tehran for not wearing her hijab appropriately. The United Nations stated that she "fell into a coma shortly after collapsing at a detention centre, and died three days later, officially of a heart attack”. Even though the local authorities assert that she died due to a heart attack, many eyewitnesses said that they saw the police physically abuse her. Mahsa’s family has also reported that she had never suffered from heart problems before and has stated that she was beaten in the police van after her arrest. According to Iran International, “she suffered several blows to the head”. These claims against the government and the police have sparked a vigorous series of protests against the treatment of women in Iran as well as the country's authoritarian regime.
As of the 17th of September, the date of Mahsa’s funeral, protests have spread across 80 cities in Iran in which women can be seen cutting their hair and burning their hijabs as well as sharing videos of multiple police brutality incidents. The increased participation of men in these protests marks a significant milestone against gender-based violence. The protests have been violently met by the police, who are equipped with guns, batons, tear gas and metal pellets. State media has reported 41 deaths of protesters and security officers since the beginning of the unrest, but the Iran Human Rights organisation currently estimates 76 protester deaths. Furthermore, the arrests of more than 1,200 people have been announced by Iranian officials. Authorities have also restricted Internet access in an effort to prevent videos demonstrating police brutality from being posted. On the night of September 21st, security forces killed 19 protesters including three children.
The UN has requested an inquiry into Mahsa’s death. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that “Mahsa Amini's tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated”. Moreover, the US Department of the Treasury has imposed sanctions on the Iranian morality police as well as on seven leaders of security organisations. Individuals across the globe have expressed solidarity in local protests in Athens, Paris, Brussels, New York, and Madrid, among others.
Is China Committing Genocide Against the Uyghurs?
A report published on August 31 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) regarding the Uyghur of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has concluded that “allegations of patterns of torture, or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence". This evidence could amount to claims of “crimes against humanity”. While the UN is strongly recommending that China stops any such acts, Beijing is rejecting all the conclusions made. On September 2nd, China’s UN ambassador announced that Beijing will no longer be cooperating with the investigations.
There were uncertainties regarding whether the report would be published, since many countries including the US have characterised China’s actions as genocide. Despite all the findings of this report and the Uyghur Tribunal’s conclusion that the Chinese government is in fact committing genocide, the UN is still hesitant in officially making this claim. Nevertheless, Beijing continues to argue that the camps exist to fight terrorism. Uyghur rights activists are requesting a special commission to launch an investigation and are asking businesses to stop any activities that could contribute to China's abuse against the Uyghurs.
EU Council Prolongs Sanctions Against Russia
The Council for the European Union announced on September 14th that restrictions against “those responsible for undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine” will remain for an additional six months, specifically until the 15th of March 2023. The restrictive measures target more than 1,200 individuals and entities and account for “travel restriction to natural persons, freezing of assets, and a ban on making funds or other economic resources available”. The European Union has imposed a series of stringent sanctions on the Russian government since 2014 in an effort to protect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Additionally, the Council enforced economic sanctions which prohibit the import of gold, oil and coal, ban the export of luxury goods and high technology, and exclude Russian and Belarusian banks from using the SWIFT payment system.
Liz Truss’s Plans to “Get Britain Working Again”
Liz Truss was appointed as the new UK prime minister on September 6th 2022 by Queen Elizabeth II, following former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's resignation. Prime Minister Truss vowed to “get Britain working again”. One of her main plans of action involves increasing immigration in order to boost growth and fill job vacancies. She will ease immigration restrictions by reviewing the current visa system in an effort to attract more overseas employees. This review will potentially discharge the prerequisite to speak English in some jobs. The scheme would also alleviate non-EU immigrants from meeting the £35,800 standard in order to be able to settle in the UK after 5 years. It is also reported that the government will lift the cap on foreign labourers working in seasonal agriculture as well as that on broadband engineers. Even though many businesses have endorsed the proposition, many Conservative members of Parliament have criticised it on the grounds that it is not in line with the Conservative Party’s pro-Brexit framework. Some ministers have discussed introducing a new visa scheme for immigrant graduates of the top 50 or top 100 global universities.
Just one day after the start of her premiership, Truss halted the ratification of the “Bill of Rights” - a law which would allow British courts to ignore human rights rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The bill would establish the British courts’ legal supremacy and facilitate the deportation of foreign criminals by limiting the possibility for them to appeal to human rights arguments. The bill was intended to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act and was one of the priorities of Dominic Raab, the justice secretary dismissed by Truss after her appointment. This legislation was first proposed in June 2022 as a response to the ECHR preventing the British government from sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. Even though Truss has publicly expressed her support for the bill, Downing Street is currently refusing to answer whether the bill will be scrapped or not.
Truss has also pledged to transition into a low-tax economy, with reductions in income tax and discounts for savers and child benefit claimants. During her first overseas trip as Prime Minister she announced that “lower taxes lead to economic growth, there is no doubt in my mind about that”. Specifically, those earning between £12,750 and £80,000 would pay just a 20% tax, which would save them an average of £3000 per year. When delineating her energy policy, she announced that household energy bills will be frozen at £2,500 for the next two years, in an effort to relieve pressure placed upon consumers and businesses by elevated energy prices caused by Ukraine’s war. Truss’s tax-cuts and energy policies have been heavily criticised on the basis that they will burden the UK’s economy with high levels of debt.
The Legal Implications of Barristers’ Strikes
As of September 5th, 2022, criminal barristers in England and Wales are staging an indefinite strike over “long hours and stagnant pay”. The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is asking for a 25% raise in legal aid fees for representing defendants that cannot afford lawyers.
The government announced that it will raise the fees by 15% in response to the publication of an Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid proposing that “funding for criminal legal aid should be increased overall for solicitors and barristers alike as soon as possible to an annual level". The government’s offer of a 15% raise was declined by the CBA as not sufficient in the face of current inflation. This began in April 2022 when barristers refused to take on cases that were returned by other barristers due to schedule clashes. Tensions escalated when walkouts started taking place in June 2022. The strikes have since caused delays in hearings and postponements of trials. The CBA has also accused Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab of intrusion of privacy, specifically of “making a direct request for striking barristers' names to be provided to the Ministry of Justice”. The Ministry of Justice has denied these accusations, characterising them “categorically untrue”. The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an investigation for these claims after a request by Mishcon de Reya, the CBA’s lawyer. Mishcon has said that "it is understood that despite this direction request, no names were ultimately directly shared with Mr Raab".
The strikes have caused many issues in the legal system, including the release of alleged violent offenders who were freed on bail after their barristers went on strike. Judges have defended themselves by saying that the strike is not a sufficient reason to allow them to keep the defendants in jail beyond the six-month custody time limit. In a recent case involving four alleged murderers, a senior judge at Oxford Crown Court said he could not extend their custody. This and two other cases in Manchester and Bristol are currently being challenged on the grounds of time constraints. The defendants in all three cases support the judges’ decisions as they had said nothing “wrong, improper or inaccurate”. The High Court has yet to express an opinion on the matter.