Laudatory Speech for Gareth Peirce

by Prof. em. Dr. Norman Paech, Hamburg

Laudation for Gareth Peirce (solicitor, London)

on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Hans Litten Preis in 2012 

Frankfurt am Main, 15 September 2012

Dear Gareth Peirce, dear colleagues, dear friends

may I warmly welcome all of you to Frankfurt and to the German member organization of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights. I am particularly pleased that we can celebrate our 40th birthday together with our friends and colleagues from the United Kingdom who have been successfully cooperating with us, as friends, for decades.  What better occasion could there be to award the Hans Litten Preisto a British colleague who personifies exactly what we want to express with this award.

The occasion, of course, always gives us an opportunity to remember the extraordinary solicitor and advocate of the law Hans Litten was in times when this law was driven into catastrophe. An opportunity to remember an imperturbable anti-fascist to be among the first whom the fascists sent to a concentration camp and, eventually, to death. The 75th anniversary of his death will be marked this coming February.

We award the Hans Litten Preis in recognition of legal achievements and to a person who, like Hans Litten himself, is uncompromisingly committed to the law, and who does not avoid necessary confrontations with power-political interests and the institutions representing them. In addition, and maybe more importantly, we present the award because we hope to encourage laureates to pursue their work, to not give up, and to overcome the obstacles they have to face along the way. We would also like to set an example, an incentive to our colleagues to keep helping, with their legal means, and to save from disappearance those who are politically persecuted, who have fallen victim to degenerated judicial systems, often at the mercy of state terror cloaked in justice. Our laureate, Gareth Peirce, personifies the fact that this kind of support is not only needed in far-away countries on far-away continents.

A few kilometers and a waterway only separate us from the United Kingdom, from England that was part of the cradle of Enlightenment. The Magna Charta, the first document to develop the idea of civil and human rights, was drafted in England and became the basis for the concept of the rule of law. Our German legal system, for as much as it may differ from the British system, is based on this tradition. Given the deep economic and political crises Europe is current being driven into, people seem to forget that this tradition is in danger. They cling to the judicial system – a typical German reflex – and praise the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court) as the country’s most serious and most trustworthy institution by far. But let us not be misled. Gareth Peirce is also here to remind us of exactly that.

In 2010, she published Dispatches from the Dark Side: On Torture and the Death of Justice. She gives examples from her legal practice and points to the deep wounds recent years have inflicted on legal principles which – up to now – had been considered invulnerable. Gareth Pearce writes: “We could never have envisaged that the history of the new century would encompass the destruction and distortion of fundamental Anglo-American legal and political constitutional principles in place since the seventeenth century. Habeas Corpus, [i.e. the protection of personal freedom], has been abandoned for the outcasts of the new order in both the USA and the United Kingdom, secret courts have been created to hear secret evidence, guilt has been inferred by association, torture and rendition nakedly justified (in the UK our government lawyers continue to argue positively for the right to use the product from both) and vital international conventions consolidated after the Second World War – the Geneva Convention, the Refugee Convention, the Torture Convention – have been deliberately avoided or ignored.” Gareth Peirce also informs us that “The last several years have found us in the midst of more such catastrophes than we could ever, in our worst nightmares, have dreamed of.” She regrets the disintegration of justice which Noam Chomsky confirmed by stating that the Magna Charta has been shredded in recent years.

And although this devastating verdict may appear exaggerated to the common citizen and contemporary, he/ she will find historic examples for even more drastic state attacks on the rule of law. The closer we get to the margins of society where social exclusion and political protest are at home, the more the idea of justice and equality before the law must prove itself. Gareth Peirce has dedicated her work to the outcasts of society whom she could, in many cases, free from wrongful imprisonment, and she has exposed the dark side of state power.

Her commitment, if I can trust Google and the BBC, could hardly have been sparked by her family or by Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Oxford University, the upper class educational institutions she attended, thus pursuing, by the way, an educational career comparable to that of Hans Litten. It must, instead, have been the ideals of Martin Luther King whose Civil Rights Campaign she joined in the 1960s. When she returned to the UK, she took a post-graduate course at the London School of Economics and was then recruited by Benedict Birnberg whose law firm is unanimously considered as ‘radical’. She took on cases that earned her the reputation of being the United Kingdom’s leading defense lawyer: “She transformed the criminal justice scene in this country almost single-handedly“, says her associate Birnberg and the BBC called her an “unreconstructed, old-fashioned, radical lawyer“, a description I would be pleased with. She may have found less reason to be pleased in the fact that Emma Thompson played Gareth Peirce in a film which centers around a case that had made the civil rights lawyer well-known before.

In the Name of the Father illustrates one of the most spectacular miscarriages of justice in the United Kingdom: In 1975, the Guildford Four, three men from Northern Ireland and an Englishwoman, had been sentenced to life imprisonment. They were accused of the two bomb attacks by the Provisional IRA on two pubs in Guildford and Woolwich. A total of seven people were killed and 65 injured, some heavily. In spite of numerous inconsistencies, the presiding judge passed his verdict simply on the basis of confessions that British police had obtained by means of heavy torture. And although, shortly after this sentence, the Balcombe Street Gang, an IRA unit, admitted to be responsible for the attacks, the appeal lodged by the Guildford Four in 1975 was rejected. It was only in 1989 that Gareth Peirce and her colleague Alastair Logan succeeded in having proceedings re-opened. Both Logan and Peirce had been campaigning in favour of the Guildford Four for years and they increased the pressure on the government. The judgement was finally set aside and the Guildford Four were released after 14 years of imprisonment.

The case of the Birmingham Six is quite similar and equally linked to Gareth Peirce’s name. Six men from Northern Ireland were imprisoned immediately after bombs exploded in two pubs in Birmingham in 1974. In the worst bomb attacks on the British Isles at that time, 12 people lost their lives and 161 were wounded. A year later, and again based on questionable evidence and on confessions obtained under torture, the six men received lifetime sentences. Their appeals were dismissed. Both in 1976 and in 1988. Yet, as public awareness had been raised, public pressure finally led to a new appeal. Gareth Peirce and her colleagues presented new evidence, increased doubts in political investigation methods and succeeded in having the Birmingham Six acquitted – after 16 years of unlawful confinement. There were other supposed IRA bombers, victims of the terror hysteria, that Gareth Peirce succeeded in freeing: Judith Ward and Frank Johnson, after 26 years in prison.

Peirce’s experiences during the court cases related to the Northern Ireland conflict were staggering: British courts offered neither protection nor justice, experts violated their oaths of office, police were willing to withhold, to forge or to produce new evidence by means of torture, and the willingness to use such evidence was widespread although the House of Lords had confirmed the principle that no British court shall use evidence extracted under torture. The Republic of Ireland took the United Kingdom to the European Court of Human Rights. And, this is what Birnberg referred to, in 1991, the British Home Office had to establish a commission to review the British criminal justice system. Its report led to a reform of appeals procedures in 1995 and to the establishment of an independent commission of experts. Yet, even though investigation procedures for false oath and conspiracy were opened against the police officers who had questioned suspects in 1974 and 1975 , they were never charged. 

During the long years of the Northern Ireland conflict, the escalation of terror, on both sides, destroyed confidence in the national justice system. After the events of 9/11, this phenomenon was to expand to the international level. ,The Muslims’ now have taken over the role ,the Irish’ played then. “Say terrorism and it excuses everything”, is how Gareth Peirce sums up her experiences gained from appearing for people innocently imprisoned in Guantánamo, e.g. Moazzem Begg, Binyam Mohamed or Benaissa Taleb. All of them were tortured, whether in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria or Morocco. Tortured with methods that British soldiers and police had already tested on their prisoners in 1938: methods that left no visible traces and could easily be denied. Not only were the British secret services aware of this; often enough torturing was based on their information. The services conducted more than two thousand interviews in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Iran and supplied them to Algeria, Syria and Morocco, where the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Clique had taken the prisoners to extract [false] confessions and information. All of that happened under cover and on the pretext of ,national security’. But, as Gareth Peirce writes: „Yet we were there at those sites of unlawful confinement; in many cases it was we who told the Americans where to locate British nationals and British residents for rendition; it was we who provided information that could be and was used in conditions of torture; and it is we who have received the product.“ (Dispatches from the Dark Side, p. 3). “If we look carefully there is sufficient evidence that British foreign policy, and indeed its domestic policy, have for many years been conducted in a way that is in violation not only of our own law and of international law, but which, far worse, has led us to be complicit in torture and in the commission of internationally prohibited crimes against humanity.“ (ibid., p. 13).

We, however, should not look at this from outside and consider it a plight of a neighbouring country because, at least since 9/11, we do have similar problems which are kept just as secret for the sake of ,national interests’. The Bundestag’s first investigation committee, in its 16th legislative period, investigated the secret CIA flights, the abduction of Abdel Halim Khafagy, Khaled al-Masri, Mohamad Haydar Zammar and Murat Kurnaz, all of them German citizens, as well as the deployment of the German Intelligence Service (BND) in Bagdad before and after the Iraq war. In its special vote on 24 June 2009, the parliamentary party DIE LINKE stated: „The USA heavily relied on German intelligence regarding the abducted individuals although it was known that they were detained under inhuman conditions, that they were constantly tortured and that some of them even faced a death sentence. Germany was quick to be among the first countries to benefit from torturing. Not just by accepting, and unlawfully using results obtained by force for investigations, but even by having German officials interrogate inmates in torture prisons.“ (Germany’s Role in the USA’s War against Terror: Germany, state under the rule of law, a victim of misconceived loyalty to the Alliance. Special vote by the parliamentary party DIE LINKE. On the final report of the 16th legislative period of the German Bundestag, Berlin 2009).

Yet another case which Gareth Peirce took on has its parallels in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is only one example of how refugees from Arab countries, who cannot be deported because they risk being tortured in their home countries, find themselves under general suspicion of islamism. In Britain, on 17 December 2001, 12 men from Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Libya were taken from their apartments and were put behind the bars of Belmarsh Prison. They remained there without being tried or interrogated. Nor were they told why they had been imprisoned. Their solicitors were denied inspection of their files. Decades ago, not even the Irish prisoners had been treated that way. The men were simply told that, for reasons not to be disclosed, they were suspected of being in touch with people who had close connections to Al-Qaida. Their assurance that before September 11 they had never even heard of Al-Qaida, was to no avail. For three years, Gareth Peirce kept up her Kafkaesque struggle until, shortly before Christmas 2005, the House of Lords ended the nightmare by declaring unlawful any imprisonment without trial. The men could now leave prison but were neither rehabilitated nor totally free: Curfews, communication bans, limited internet access were imposed on them and they had to carry identification tags supplied with voice recognition systems which, in some cases, did not recognize Arabic.

We know about arrests based on simple allegations of victims’ connections to terrorist groups. For the purpose of such arrests, articles 129 a) and b) were added to the German penal code and are presently used when dealing with Kurdish nationals. In Hamburg, Ali Ihsan Kitay has been in custody since October 2011 and is facing trial at the Oberlandesgericht [Higher Regional Court] on charges of his [alleged] „membership in a terrorist organization“. He is not accused of any concrete crimes or attacks in Germany but of having held a leading position within the PKK. Gareth Peirce describes exactly the frame of mind in Germany that she criticizes with her fellow citizens in Britain: “We are quite apathetic in this country, both politically and morally. As soon as the government suspects someone to be a terrorist and imprisons him or has him monitored without charge, we consider him a proven terrorist.“

We still believe this to be so in the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from Libya, who is one of Gareth Peirce’s most prominent clients as he was sentenced to life in prison for the Lockerbie plane bombing in December 1988 which cost the lives of 259 people. In 2009, having been diagnosed with cancer, he was officially pardoned, despite vigorous protests, and died in May this year. Gareth Peirce continues to be convinced that al-Megrahi became an innocent victim of a political deal between British and American parties concerned. To her, it is obvious that the explosion of PAM AM flight 103 was an act of revenge for an Iranian passenger jet having been shot down by US warship Vincennes in July 1988, killing 290 people. Legal proceedings to investigate this US Marine ,error’ were never initiated. A meeting of the UN Security Council was never convened. For two years, investigations around the Lockerbie bombing focused on a Palestinian splinter group, the ‚Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command‘, a group known to commit terror attacks on demand. Then, however, the CIA took over investigations from Scottish police and directed suspicions towards Libya. The political background had changed due to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. As the UN Security Council had given the USA a mandate against Iraq, a confrontation with those who probably commissioned the Lockerbie attack, i.e. Iran and Syria, had to be avoided. Gaddafi’s Libya was a much less dangerous and plausible aim, and the Security Council was easily convinced to join the ranks of those who opposed that provocateur. But in the end, the wrong man wound up in a British prison. It all sounds like a plot written by John Le Carré, but it was a bad piece of British justice in the clutches of politics. “The term miscarriage of justice carries with it the inference of accident, but also of death. There is a pressing need to investigate in detail how it has come about that there has been a form of death in this case – the death of justice – and who should be found responsible.“ (ibid. p. 50) These are Gareth Peirce’s closing remarks on her thoughts about justice being exploited.       

Our laureate is a lucid advocate of the law who harbours no illusions. Neither her defeats in court nor public hostilities have ever made her doubt that it is her task and duty to protect the minorities from the majorities, to represent the pariahs of society, to bring the outcasts back and to bar hopelessness from judicial history. And her successes are quite numerous. As a civil rights lawyer, she is an indisputable expert, and she clearly sides with those who are politically prosecuted. This makes her a worthy winner of the award in memory of Hans Litten. In 1999, she was awarded a CBE, Commander of the British Empire [equivalent to the German Cross of Merit] for services to justice. But five years later she asked Downing Street for it to be withdrawn and apologized for having mistakenly indicated that she felt able to accept it. Her decision pleases me. And I am quite thankful to our friend Bill Bowring for having made us aware of this extraordinary colleague of ours. Today’s award ceremony  gives us the opportunity to spread Gareth Peirce’s reputation in Germany. Not mainly for her own sake but definitely to counter widespread and justified doubts about the legal system and politics with a truly realistic perspective of resistance and justice. The times of terror are not over and we need advocates who shall resist its being exploited. May Gareth Peirce pursue her work as relentlessly as ever. We do feel honored that she has come to Frankfurt to accept our award and we hope to cooperate as friends in the future.

[Hamburg, on September 5, 2012

for the Award Ceremony in Frankfurt/Main, on September 15, 2012]                                                      



[Translated from the German original by Jutta Himmelreich, Bonn.]